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O'Neill talks up Gibraltar challenge as Irish play catch up

Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler, James McClean and Cyrus Christie at an Ireland training session at Estadio Algarve, Faro ahead of the clash against Gibraltar 
Picture: Sportsfile 
Brendan Crossan in Faro

Euro 2016 Qualifying Group D: Gibraltar v Republic of Ireland
(Friday, Estadio Algarve, 7.45pm, live on RTÉ2 & Sky Sports 1)

UNDER the low evening sun in the Algarve, Martin O’Neill made his pitch to a doubting public. It was time to sell the Gibraltar illusion. Reporters respectfully listened. 

Gibraltar were no pushovers, we were told. Gibraltar have improved. Gibraltar gave world champions Germany a run for their money for 45 minutes back in June, although they eventually lost 7-0 – the third time they’ve lost by the same miserable margin in this their first competitive campaign as a fully fledged nation. 

“We’ve watched them a couple of times and we watched their last game against Germany where I thought they played very well indeed,” said O’Neill. 

“They should really have equalised in that game around the half hour mark and caused Germany some problems. Actually, in the second half Germany got a host of goals as a counter-attacking team more than anything else. Gibraltar have improved since the campaign began. 

“There’s absolutely no question about that and we have to find ways to break them down and be as strong as we possibly can defensively. Even the great Germans conceded ground to them.”

The problem was nobody in the room was buying O’Neill’s cautionary tale that Gibraltar are a genuine threat to Ireland’s already tenuous hopes of qualifying for next summer’s Euro 2016 finals in France.

This wasn’t one of O’Neill’s memorable press conferences. Flanked by captain Robbie Keane, it lasted less than 17 minutes in the towering Estadio Algarve last night. Truth be told, it was probably 17 minutes too long. 

There is arguably more interest in Scotland’s Group D game with Georgia in Tbilisi, which kicks off at 5pm on Friday. With still four games to go in the group, the Irish are already on the look-out for favours to breathe new life into a faltering qualification campaign that hit the hard shoulder following a morale-sapping home draw with the Scots three months ago.

Anything other than a Scotland win would put the Irish in buoyant mood ahead of their dalliance with Gibraltar. 

O’Neill added: “It’s naturally a very important game for us, it’s a game we have to win and that’s what we’ve been focussed on all week. Not to concentrate on anything else other than winning the game. 

“We’d like to be going into the Georgia game on Monday night with three extra points.” 

Séamus Coleman, James McCarthy, James McClean, Glenn Whelan and Marc Wilson – all likely starters in Faro – are just one booking away from a suspension. 

“It’s almost inevitable you’re going to pick up these yellow cards, and it must be very, very difficult to go through a 10-game programme without some players finding themselves on three yellow cards,” O’Neill sighed. 

“It is what it is. And, of course, those five players who are on two yellow cards I would like to remind them, there are some challenges that might not be worth it and there are other ones where it certainly would be.

“Some players get booked for innocuous things and it tallies up, but I cannot start predicting what’s going to happen. If we think too far ahead it’ll come back to haunt you.” 

Paul McShane, Eunan O’Kane, Adam Rooney, Anthony Pilkington and Alex Pearce were cut from O’Neill’s squad, with new boys O’Kane and Rooney expected to be available again for Monday night’s home tie with Georgia. O’Neill insisted he had no worries over Jon Walters’ mindset after the Stoke City player missed out on a move to WBA on transfer deadline day.  

“Jon is fine, he’s really fine, even though he wasn’t in the Stoke City line-up at the weekend he’s pretty fit. I think he played all of the game against Luton Town the previous week.”

Despite O’Neill’s utterances, Ireland’s hosts are, without equivocation, the worst team in Europe. Their performances to date have been abysmal, the type of which that might even have the likes of San Marino and the Andorra looking down their modest noses.

In their six games they have conceded 34 goals and scored just once. After drawing a blank in their first four games, Lee Casciaro of Lincoln Red Imps made history by scoring Gibraltar’s first competitive goal, which saw the group minnows draw level with Scotland for 10 blissful minutes at Hampden Park back in March before they leaked five more goals.

In terms of when they leak goals in games, Gibraltar have conceded 15 in the first half and 19 in the second half. They are already on their third manager in this campaign. 

Allen Bula was in charge for the first four games before Dave Wilson was appointed interim manager for the next three games. In July, Englishman Jeff Wood was appointed Gibraltar’s manager on a permanent basis and Friday will be his first competitive game in charge.      

They lost their first match 7-0 at ‘home’ to Poland before the Irish repeated the dose last October that saw Robbie Keane score the quickest hat-trick (18 minutes) in European Championship history. 
That was in the early stages of the qualification campaign. But since then the mood music in the Irish camp has changed considerably. 

It would take a remarkable change in form – and there is little evidence of that happening in the final four games – and a couple of major slip-ups from the Scots for the Republic to stand any chance of qualifying for next year’s Euro finals in France via the play-offs. 

The Scots could still lose drop points against Germany and Poland and still net a third place finish that guarantees a play-off berth.

The sneaking suspicion is that the decisive action may already have taken place in Group D as the Irish try to mount one last push and hope their Celtic neighbours implode between now and next month. 

 

PROBABLE RoI TEAM
Given, Coleman, Brady, O’Shea, Wilson, McCarthy, Whelan, Hoolahan, Walters, Keane, McClean.

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