Martin O’Neill is on the brink of joining Jack Charlton in the Republic of Ireland managerial Hall of Fame after overseeing progress to the World Cup play-offs.
Success over Wales on Monday night in Cardiff has left Ireland 180 minutes away from joining football’s greatest party in Russia next summer.
The draw for the play-offs take place next Tuesday lunchtime in Zurich and while Ireland will be unseeded, they won’t fear anyone.
Martin O’Neill is on the brink of joining Jack Charlton in the Republic of Ireland Hall of Fame
James McClean’s stunning winner against Wales sends Ireland to the lottery of the play-offs
This will be the eighth play-off in 22 years, and ninth in all, after Ireland secured second place in Group D after a topsy-turvy campaign.
Ireland began well, experienced a mid-term wobble, before finishing with a six-point haul to finish runners-up to Serbia, winners over Georgia on Monday night.
The play-offs beckon next month and the FAI could face a major venue headache.
The first legs of the play-offs are fixed for November 9-11, and the FAI will pray that Ireland are drawn away from home as Aviva Stadium hosts a rugby international between Ireland and South Africa on Saturday, November 11.
O’Neill will hope for an away tie in the first leg as the Aviva Stadium is set to host a rugby match
With the customary captain’s run the day before a rugby international, that means Friday, November 10 could also be out of bounds for a play-off.
After losing Shane Long to injury on Monday morning, O’Neill will trust he has as many of his front-line players available next month. An added-time booking means stand-in skipper David Meyler will miss the first leg because of suspension.
It’s possible that Ireland’s formal captain Seamus Coleman, sorely missed in the latter half of the campaign, could yet return in the nick of time.
An added-time booking means David Meyler will miss the first leg because of suspension
It’s possible that Ireland’s formal captain Seamus Coleman could yet return in the nick of time
Emergence of a partnership between Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark
It’s not always perfect but having a consistent pairing at the heart of the defence is crucial, especially at international level when time together is limited.
Martin O’Neill needs to build a spine of a team for what is to come – once that contract is signed, sealed and delivered – and Duffy and Clark will be key.
They are a threat in opposition boxes, too, as has been proven, and that is sure to be a regular weapon in what is a limited attacking arsenal. Currently both regulars in the Premier League, that can also only be a positive down the line.
The emergence of a Shane Duffy (left) and Ciaran Clark partnership was one of the high points
Ability to get on the front foot
Right from the start of this Group D campaign Ireland have shown that they are capable of catching opponents off guard and punishing them. It is not just a quirk of nature that O’Neill’s men scored four goals inside the first five minutes of matches.
Away to Serbia, Moldova and Georgia, and then again last Friday in the 2-0 win over the Moldovans at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland have taken early leads. While they were unable to build on those quick-fire beginnings in Belgrade or Tbilisi, scoring so soon is certainly a handy habit to get into. With a bit more work and experience, Ireland should be able to make more of such scenarios in future.
Promise of more to come
If the performance against Italy in Lille at Euro 2016 was the blueprint for how this Ireland team should set up, the manner of the away win over Austria in Vienna last November was further evidence that O’Neill has players capable of being measured and clinical in opponents’ own back yards.
There is enough said about the limitations of every Irish player but that victory, and the sweeping counter-attack goal, was proof of what they are capable of.
As well as that, fringe players have stepped up at various times to play their part – Cyrus Christie, David Meyler, Harry Arter, Daryl Murphy – while Callum O’Dowda looks to have a spark of much-needed ingenuity considering Wes Hoolahan has reached the autumn of his career.
Also the fact that fringe players have stepped up such as Cyrus Christie will be a positive
…AND THE LOWS
Seamus Coleman’s injury
Ireland not only lost their captain, and their motivational force, they also lost crucial momentum when Coleman was crudely crocked by Neil Taylor in the first Welsh encounter in Dublin. Taylor was sent off but the price to Ireland was far higher. Without Coleman, Ireland lacked leadership and a world-class presence on the right flank. Coleman was on hand in Cardiff on Monday night but only in the capacity of a frustrated cheerleader. How Ireland missed him.
Coleman turns 29 on Wednesday but should be on board for the 2022 World Cup campaign.
Ireland not only lost their captain, and their motivational force when Coleman was injured
Absence of home rule
At the start of 2017, Ireland led Group D and had home fixtures to come against the three teams they worried about most, Wales, Austria and Serbia.
It all looked rosy. Yet, from a possible nine points, Ireland managed two and scored just two goals as they slipped back in the pack.
From being the hunted, they became hunters again. There was a time when Ireland were half a goal up before a game started in Dublin but, Germany apart, there have been few memorable victories in the Aviva Stadium.
Trouble with a capital T in Tbilisi
A bizarre night saw Ireland blow a lead and cough up vital ground as they gave Georgia the level of respect a Germany or Spain may have merited.
Even so, Ireland created six clear-cut scoring chances, and only managed to take one. It was the first time they failed to win away to Georgia in four games and it proved so costly.
Afterwards, O’Neill lamented how Robbie Keane in his prime would have put the chances away but the manager could have turned to Sean Maguire who was overlooked for longer than necessary.