Bragging rights at stake as Republic of Ireland host Northern Ireland
International friendly: Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland (tonight, Aviva Stadium, 7.45pm)
FOR both sets of supporters – and probably the two managers – tonight’s friendly clash between the two Irelands outstrips their upcoming Nations League games.
With the Republic’s final Nations League game against Denmark on Monday night expected to be a dead rubber – just like Northern Ireland’s home tie against Austria 24 hours earlier – a win for either side in Dublin tonight would rank higher in the hearts and minds of each camp.
The last meaningful game between the north and south (the pair played a training game behind closed doors in 2015) was a Dublin friendly back in 2011.
The Republic ran out 5-0 winners against Nigel Worthington’s side. It is safe to say tonight’s clash will be more competitive than their last official meeting.
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For the Republic, the Nations League has been a bit of a disaster zone that has put Martin O’Neill somewhat on the back foot, especially the manner in which they lost to Wales (twice) and Denmark.
The north had encouraging spells in their defeats to Bosnia (twice) and Austria – and Michael O’Neill’s side undoubtedly play a better brand of football – but, like anything, defeats can have a sapping effect on a squad.
That’s why both the Republic and Northern Ireland will want to use tonight’s prestigious friendly clash to re-launch themselves ahead of the start of Euro 2020 qualification next March.
“For us, we want to get back to winning ways,” said Martin O’Neill, who endured quite a bit of criticism after last month’s home defeat to Wales.
“We’re at home and we’d like us to get on the front foot from the start. I think it will be very competitive.”
Robbie Brady, arguably Ireland’s best player, is back after almost a year out with a knee injury. The Burnley man has played three games on the comeback trail and although he's lacking match sharpness his delivery from set pieces is sure to boost the side.
Rookie international Matt Doherty was ruled out of contention yesterday due to a facial injury he sustained while playing for Wolves against Arsenal last weekend.
Striker Shane Long is out again, so too is Ciaran Clark. James McClean may be suspended for Monday night’s trip to Aarhus but will feature against the north tonight.
With Long out of the picture, Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire, Callum Robinson and Aiden O'Brien are all vying for starting slots in attack, while Seamus Coleman is likely to resume at right back in place of the injured Doherty.
Like the Republic, Michael O’Neill is looking to the future with a clutch of U21 players who have impressed under Ian Baraclough. Bobby Burns, on-loan at Livingstone, has been promoted to the senior ranks and joins Jordan Thompson (Blackpool), Paul Smyth (QPR) and goalkeeper Conor Hazard (Celtic).
Kyle Lafferty has returned to international duty after his late withdrawal from last month’s double-header with Bosnia and Austria.
Liam Boyce, who gained a rare start in the Northern Ireland attack in Bosnia, continues to impress for Burton Albion and should retain his manager’s faith in Dublin tonight.
While the two O’Neills have clashed earlier this year over a stream of northern-born players switching allegiances to the south, the Republic of Ireland boss was full of praise for the achievements of his namesake. The younger O’Neill guided the north to Euro 2016 – their first major finals appearance since 1986 – and were effectively robbed of a place at last summer’s World Cup finals in their controversial play-off against Switzerland.
“It was a difficult start for him but he’s overcome that and he’s done exceptionally well,” said Martin of Michael.
“Their qualification to the Euros was terrific and the efforts in trying to qualify for the World Cup were equally as good. It came down to the play-offs and to lose to a goal that was at best disputed [in the first leg against Switzerland] and should never have been given was pretty galling and hard to take.
“I think he’s trying to change the side around now for the upcoming Euros but overall he’s done exceptionally well.”