Ireland enter into Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Serbia knowing that, really, only a win will do in their quest to finish top of Group D.
Saturday’s 1-1 draw in Georgia has increased the pressure on Martin O’Neill and the Boys in Green to deliver at the Aviva, knowing that defeat will put that top spot almost certainly beyond them.
As if the manager didn’t have enough problems to worry about, the midfield is starting to look a bit thin as injuries take their toll. James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick have already been ruled out, while Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady have emerged as doubts just over 24 hours before kick-off.
The latter probably would have been a bench option anyway (though there is a strong argument that he should start), but O’Neill’s probable plan of preserving Hoolahan for this match is out the window if he can’t prove his fitness in time.
Assuming the Norwich playmaker is not fit to start, here’s how we think O’Neill should line up against Slavoljub Muslin’s men.
Darren Randolph. Wasn’t overly busy in Tbilisi (and couldn’t do much for the goal). Randolph (largely) remains a solid option between the posts and probably wouldn’t deserve to lose his place in the starting lineup at this stage.
Cyrus Christie. Realisitically the only option Ireland have at right-back, though it would be slightly unfair to mark him down just because of that. Christie has held his own since coming in for Seamus Coleman and deserves his place in the starting eleven on merit.
Shane Duffy. Scored the early goal in Tbilisi, and didn’t do much wrong overall. Collectively a bad night for the team but the Brighton centre-half should keep his place in the team.
Ciaran Clark. The temptation might be to go with the older heads John O’Shea and Richard Keogh against tough opposition, but if O’Neill trusts the Clark-Duffy axis to be the future then he has to trust them here. Could probably do without hoofing the ball as much, mind.
Stephen Ward. As with Christie on the other side, Ward is the only specialist left-back in the squad. The attacking instincts he showed against Chelsea for his club side were nowhere to be found in Tbilisi, but until such time as another left-sided option presents itself then Ward is automatically the best choice.
Harry Arter. The Bournemouth man allowed the game to pass him by last week, and he’ll be looking to stamp his authority far more on Tuesday’s match. Arter has a big future in the Irish midfield and this is the perfect chance for him to prove that.
Conor Hourihane. Glenn Whelan surely played his way out of the Irish starting eleven on Saturday. The Aston Villa man is useful at what he does, but was far too static and completely overrun by Georgia. With Serbia set to play the same formation, Whelan can’t be risked again. Step forward his Villa teammate Hourihane. The Corkman is a brilliant reader of the game, perfectly capable of cutting out Serbian attacks and turning them into Irish ones.
James McClean. Works hard for the team, that much can’t be denied, but his technique has let him down more often than not recently. His newly-discovered eye for goal should see him moved to the centre and allow for more dynamic and unpredictable options on the wings.
Daryl Horgan. Ideally someone like McGeady should be used to stretch the Serbian defence and take advantage of the possible gaps out wide due to their 3-4-3, but if McGeady isn’t fit enough then O’Neill could do worse than start Horgan. The former Dundalk winger has been used sparingly at international level, but his energy and fearlessness lessen the risk of throwing him in at the deep end.
Robbie Brady. Euro 2016 seems like a lifetime ago now. The Burnley man has been starting to coast on the reputation earned from those heroics lately, and went missing too often on Saturday. Still an automatic pick and still capabale of creating danger from out wide, Brady nonetheless needs to step it up on Tuesday.
Jonathan Walters. If Ireland start with only one striker against Serbia (as they should, using two against Georgia was pointless) then it has to be Walters. Offers far more of a goal threat than Long and physicality could be needed to disrupt the Serbian defence in what will almost certainly be a tough encounter.