Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland enter into a decisive week that will have massive ramifications on the nation’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in Russia next year.
The Boys in Green have been going well so far and sit joint-top of the table with Serbia heading into these two matches (with a bit of breathing space from Wales and Austria behind), acutely aware that only one team is going to qualify automatically from the group.
O’Neill has a few injury problems to deal with in the build-up to Saturday’s game against Georgia in Tbilisi, though Jonny Walters is now expected to be fit for the clash and will not be added to an injury list that already features James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick.
With those absences in mind, we’ve put together our eleven to earn those valuable three points and head into Tuesday’s encounter with Serbia at the Aviva on a high.
Darren Randolph. With Joe Hart arriving at West Ham, it was vital for Randolph to leave and secure first-team football. He has achieved that at Middlesbrough, even if he did have to drop down a division. Question marks remain over his long-term suitability as Ireland’s number one but for now, he should remain in the role as a solid option.
Cyrus Christie. Automatic pick since Seamus Coleman’s injury, nonetheless Christie has impressed since coming into the side. His goal against Uruguay showed that he is not afraid to bomb forward and join the attack, but doesn’t let it be to the detriment of his defensive responsibilities.
Ciaran Clark. Being back in the Premier League will only be good for Clark’s development, even if it will almost certainly in a relegation battle. The Newcastle centre-back is seen as one half of the pairing of the future with Shane Duffy, and with both fit again, expect that to be given another outing.
Shane Duffy. See above. Duffy’s return from injury has been beneficial for Brighton despite their tough start in the Premier League. Will likely get the nod ahead of Kevin Long, John O’Shea and Richard Keogh, and deservedly so.
Stephen Ward. Still Burnley’s first choice left-back despite the summer arrival of Charlie Taylor, Ward started the new season by scoring a cracker in the win against Chelsea. Had a bit of a shocker against Austria in June but his improvement before that can forgive one bad performance.
Glenn Whelan. Granted, injuries to McCarthy and Hendrick limit O’Neill’s options in midfield somewhat, but in a game like this that could get physical, Whelan is perfect. Rarely lets the side down in a green jersey and despite the divisiveness that his selection tends to cause, games like this are tailor-made for him.
Harry Arter. Arter took the long way to becoming an Ireland regular but now seems at home in the squad. He can dictate the tempo of the central midfield to balance Whelan’s physicality (moreso than Whelan’s Aston Villa teammate Conor Hourihane), and that level of assuredness will be essential in Tbilisi.
Wes Hoolahan. The biggest beneficiary from Jeff Hendrick’s absence, Hoolahan will probably be handed a start due to how few options O’Neill actually has. (Many argue that he should be starting regardless, but that is an argument for another day.). In a compact defence that may need to be unlcoked, Wes has proven time and again that he is the man for that occasion.
James McClean. Didn’t have the best of games against Austria (nobody did, to be fair), but McClean has been fast becoming the most important player that Ireland have. His energy and workrate are second to none, and that he has added goals to his game is an exciting bonus. Could end up in the centre as an alternative to Hoolahan, but the wing is where he is at his most deadly.
Robbie Brady. After the dizzying highs of Euro 2016, Brady has been usurped by McClean for the role of Irelan’d’s talisman. Nonetheless, he has started the season in good form with Burnley soif he can carry that over to the Ireland team on Saturday then he could have a mssive hand in the result.
Jon Walters: If he’s fully fit, he starts. No question. The only question is where. He could be played on the right to accommodate Shane Long, but that team feels very static (even if it has McClean in a free role behind the striker). Likewise, Walters could end up partnering Long in a 4-4-2 but again the dynamism of McClean, Brady and Hoolahan would be lost in such a formation. Walters is Ireland’s biggest goal threat, he should be the focal point of the attack.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we speak to Longford boss Neale Fenn about his start to managerial life and look ahead to this weekend’s LOI fixtures and Ireland internationals.