Ireland’s slim hopes of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia will almost certainly crumble to dust if they don’t beat Moldova on Friday night.
The good news, however, is that the runners-up spot (if not a playoff place) is still very much in Ireland’s hands. The task (but the execution) is simple: two wins from two guarantees second place behind Serbia.
Of course, this is Ireland. Ireland don’t do simple. If they were able to build on their good start then the Russian visa applications may have already been placed. As it is, the Boys in Green head into their last two matches with a number of injuries, suspensions, and three new strikers in two. If nothing else, it promises to be a fascinating night at the Aviva.
But with the Robbie Brady and James McClean suspended, the likes of Shane Duffy, Cyrus Christie and Stephen Ward one yellow away from missing the Wales game, and doubts surrounding the fitness of players such as Harry Arter and Shane Long (with Jon Walters already ruled out), how should Ireland line up against Moldova?
Darren Randolph. After this campaign there should, perhaps, be a serious discussion about which of Randolph, Keiren Westwood or Rob Elliot should proceed as Ireland’s number one – but for now, Randolph has given Martin O’Neill little reason to change keepers midway through this one.
Cyrus Christie. The Middlesbrough defenders is Ireland’s only specialist right-back in the squad, and for that reason alone he has to start. Ordinarly he might not be risked with that yellow card hanging over him, but O’Neill has no other option really.
Richard Keogh. With Shane Duffy also on a yellow it might be wise to leave him on the bench for this one. Ireland aren’t short options either with Kevin Long and John O’Shea also ready to come in, but with the former on the bench more often than not this season and the latter’s best days well behind him, Keogh should get the nod.
Ciaran Clark. Not in danger suspension and should be able to handle both games with no problems, fitness-wise. There could be a decision taken with Duffy, not not with Clark.
Stephen Ward. See, Christie, Cyrus. Greg Cunningham might have been in the squad but for long-term injury and Robbie Brady could have played there but for suspension, so despite the fact that he could miss the huge clash in Cardiff, Ward will start but will likely be told to go easy on the hard tackles.
David Meyler. Another player on a yellow card so would have to watch himself, but Meyler earned the right to start after turning in a fine performance against Serbia. Glenn Whelan is another option but the Aston Villa man’s static play simply doesn’t work when Ireland need to be taking their game to an opponent like they will be on Friday.
Jeff Hendrick. Hendrick has looked out of sorts for Ireland since Euro 2016, and Conor Hourihane and a fully fit Harry Arter would be knocking on the door to usurp the Burnley man. If he does start this match, it might well be his last chance to show that he deserves a place in the starting eleven on merit rather than on his achievements of more than a year ago.
Wes Hoolahan. He may be kept in reserve for Wales (though as it’s a big away game that’s highly unlikely) but, until someone better/younger is found, Hoolahan remains Ireland’s most creative player. While the clamour for his inclusion can go over the top sometimes (not looking at anyone in particular), it can’t really be denied that the midfield looks more confident as a unit when the Norwich playmaker is in it.
Aiden McGeady. With McClean and Brady suspended, Ireland find themselves desperately short of natural wide men. Jonny Hayes and Daryl Horgan are options but given McGeady’s strong start to the season at Sunderland, even as the Wearsiders struggle, merits inclusion. His creativity on the flnank could be just what the Boys in Green need if the the visitors dig their heels in and park the bus.
Daryl Murphy. Often derided as a striker unable to actually put the ball in the net (and a stat of one international goal in two dozen appearances isn’t is friend in that regard), the Nottingham Forest man still seemed to adapt O’Neill’s game plan against Serbia far better than Shane Long was. The lack of goals could still be an issue, however, which brings us to…
Sean Maguire. Take the risk. Throw him in at the deep end. Maguire has hit the ground running at Preston since moving from Cork City in the summer, and is not short of confidence in the slightest. He has operated out wide as part of a front three at Deepdale linking up with a target man forward, which could pay huge dividends if he is paired with Murphy against Moldova.