Little progress made for the Republic of Ireland as they prepare for stiff Denmark test
NOT a press conference goes by these days without Republic of Ireland Martin O’Neill mentioning the need for his players to be better in possession.
And yet, with each passing game the side becomes less impressed with the idea of keeping the ball.
Thursday night’s scoreless draw with Northern Ireland was another stark example of the ball being treated like a hot potato, compounded on the night by how well Michael O’Neill’s players acquitted themselves and dominated their hosts.
After his post-match press conference, O’Neill spoke to daily newspaper reporters about the enduring chasm that exists between the training field and match day.
“It's something we have talked about for some considerable time,” said the Ireland manager.
“It's not to do with tactics, it is to do with taking the game by the scruff of the neck and being that character to do that. I think that's it, taking a bit more responsibility for a situation and being able to deal with it.
“Seamus Coleman may have mentioned earlier about translating what we do in training into the big game.
“The training has gone exceptionally well this week but it's being able to translate that and take that decent play, more than decent play, on the training ground into the game.
“That is easier said than done. I've known a lot of players who were very decent on the training ground and have never been able to translate it into the big games, but that is something we have to work on.”
The past 12 months have been hugely disappointing for O’Neill as they look like a side that hasn’t recovered from the World Cup play-off mauling they suffered at the hands of Denmark in Dublin last November.
While there has been experimentation in terms of personnel (O'Neill has given debuts to 11 players in 2018) and formations since Ireland’s first game of 2018 – a 1-0 friendly defeat in Turkey – there has been very little progress made and a distinct lack of quality players coming through.
Callum Robinson of Preston NE has emerged from a mediocre and decidedly inexperienced pack of strikers this year.
Shane Long has become more injury-prone in recent seasons and has had his struggles in front of goal at both club and international level.
Injury has curtailed warhorse Jonathan Walters while Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan and Aidan O’Brien have some road to travel before making a decisive breakthrough with Ireland.
“I would like to have thought we could have found a wee bit more going forward,” O’Neill acknowledged, who has watched his side score just four goals in eight internationals in 2018.
“I thought we might have got an established goal-scorer... It's certainly been a disappointing year in that aspect, no question about it and we have to regroup.”
With another ominous meeting with the Danes in Aarhus on Monday to round off their Nations League campaign, there is zero momentum within the squad as they await their Euro 2020 qualification fate on December 2, which gets underway next March.
“The bigger picture is the Euro qualifiers. There is no question about that, regardless of what happens on Monday night [against Denmark] and that has always been the case.
“I think we will be ready for it. We were ready for it a couple of years ago. We had a really strong battle to qualify for the Euros and we got it through to the play-offs and hopefully some of the players are coming back. I'm hoping one or two of the young lads in and around the scene, who have only played a couple of games, can come through. But like everything else, we have to try score a goal.
“When the proper games kick in in March time, we will be ready.”
Darren Randolph was arguably the only Irish player to emerge with credit after Thursday night’s scoreless draw with the north, making two excellent saves to keep the Republic in the game.
James McClean, who is suspended for the Denmark trip, struggled throughout with O’Neill noting that a lack of game-time at club level may be the reason for his dip in form.
“I think that James hasn’t reached those heights in the last year. I think he can, he’s obviously shown the type of player he was for us in World Cup qualifying, he was probably our talisman, culminating in his goal in our game against Wales.
“I think James realises that he hasn’t reached those levels for whatever reasons it might be; he isn’t playing regularly at club level either and I think those things do affect you.”
Callum O’Dowda, arguably the brightest young hope that has emerged over the last two years, is another player who perhaps hasn’t made the strides expected of him.
The 23-year-old midfielder has been out of favour at Bristol City of late which doesn’t bode well when hooking up for international duty – but the 14-times capped left footer is a player O’Neill is keen to invest in.
“What we were trying to do [against Northern Ireland] was to try not to be playing so many long balls, to be attempting to play through teams. We’ve got three men at the back, we’ve got two wide players and what we wanted to do was to get a little bit more midfield play, get on the ball and create a bit more in and the penalty area,” O’Neill explained.
“Young O’Dowda, I think he’s got that ability to do that but like everything else he hasn’t played in the last couple of weeks for Bristol City. Sometimes it is a little bit difficult for a young kid to come in not having played for a week or two, to come into the international scene and be able to produce that. I’ve got some faith in the lad, he’s done well for me and I think he can improve.”
With Declan Rice still considering his international future at least O'Neill can add teenager Michael Obafemi to his ranks after the Southampton striker, born in Dublin to Nigerian parents, declared for the south on the eve of Thursday night's friendly.
Obafemi is expected to get some game-time in Aarhus on Monday evening.
"I’m not talking about making 11 players to the side [for the Denmark clash], there are a couple of players who will play again.
"For instance, I think Robbie Brady will have improved again, certainly in terms of fitness after getting 90 minutes here. It was only the second 90 minutes he’s had since his injury.
"I think Seamus Coleman will come out of it pretty well as well. There are some other players that maybe I will have a look at. Obafemi has talked now about declaring himself, we’ll take him now with us.
"I’m not going to change 11 players, I'm going to make a couple of changes over the course of the game while realising that we are back down to three subs as well."