Republic of Ireland can take care of clever Georgians in Euro 2020 qualifier
European 2020 Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland v Georgia (tonight, 7.45pm, Lansdowne Road)
FIRST up was an uncomfortable sweat in windy Gibraltar. Now, the Republic of Ireland host Georgia in Dublin – a team that consistently plays the Irish off the park and loses.
Now under new management, the home supporters are hoping and perhaps expecting for much better in the capital tonight.
It will be the ninth meeting between the two nations in 16 years with the Georgians still dreaming of a first competitive win over their hosts.
They’ve come desperately close on a number of occasions to beating the Irish, arguably the most agonising occasion was in their last encounter in September 2017, a World Cup qualifier in Tbilisi, that ended in a 1-1 draw.
After Shane Duffy's early goal, Georgia left the Irish players dizzy by playing some wonderful, short-passing football before Valeri Qazaishvili's fully deserved equaliser.
That result turned out to be the beginning of the end for Martin O’Neill.
Before their trip to the Georgian capital, O’Neill was being quietly hailed as the best Republic of Ireland manager since Jack Charlton.
O'Neill was on the cusp of achieving back-to-back qualifications to major finals. But when the wheels came off in Tbilisi, the Irish lost at home to Serbia a few days later and the chances of automatic qualification were lost.
Unlike tonight’s hosts, Georgia took full advantage of the inaugural Nations League at the end of 2018 by gaining promotion and approached last Saturday's Euro 2020 opener with Switzerland with more than a degree of optimism. But a typically pragmatic Swiss display yielded a 2-0 win in the Georgian capital last Saturday.
And with an arduous five-hour flight to Dublin, perhaps the Swiss defeat has softened the Georgians ahead of tonight's second qualifier.
Six of the Georgia starting line-up at the weekend also featured against the Republic in September 2017, while there is likely to be less familiarity in Mick McCarthy’s starting line-up.
Shane Duffy, hoping to overcome an ankle knock sustained in the Gibraltar game, is the only survivor of the Irish back-line from Tbilisi, while current squad members Harry Arter, Glenn Whelan, Robbie Brady and James McClean also played in the World Cup qualifier.
One of the early quirks of McCarthy’s second era in charge is perhaps his slight impatience with the right side of his team.
Blessed with two quality right backs in his squad – Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty – the manager tried to accommodate both in Gibraltar, with the latter drawing the short straw by being deployed in a more unfamiliar right-sided midfield role.
Whether it was the adrenaline of the night, McCarthy declared afterwards that the experiment didn’t work.
When pressed on the issue again in a later interview, McCarthy insisted he wasn’t “dismissing” the idea of persisting with the Coleman-Doherty axis against Georgia this evening, but his 73rd minute substitution of the Wolves man and the introduction of Robbie Brady - a more natural wide midfielder – told us more about McCarthy’s intuition.
Given the abbreviated nature of McCarthy’s managerial stay, which ends for better or worse at the end of Euro 2020 qualification, he doesn’t have a lot of time or space to tease out his tactics.
A more radical move would be to drop Coleman and settle for Doherty in the right back position.
On the surface, it would seem inconceivable that Coleman, who retains the captaincy, could be dropped – but, clearly, the Everton defender has lost a yard of pace and is not the player of old since returning from his horrific leg break in March 2017.
Doherty, undoubtedly, is Ireland’s future right back – but, for the time being, Coleman will probably remain first choice although his performances will come under more scrutiny with each passing game.
Barring injury, it’s unlikely McCarthy will change his central midfielders.
Despite a string of introverted displays for Ireland over the last two seasons, Jeff Hendrick was always going to be a certain starter for McCarthy in Gibraltar and his winning goal ensures he holds onto his place.
With Harry Arter, Glenn Whelan and Robbie Brady all competing for the other central midfield berth, McCarthy’s selection of Conor Hourihane was entirely justified, as the Aston Villa man was easily Ireland’s best performer last Saturday night.
Preston’s Sean Maguire could be sweating on retaining his place in attack, though, after a disappointing showing against Gibraltar, while McCarthy might be tempted to play Brady as the second striker behind David McGoldrick.
Brady still hasn’t got 90 minutes in his legs after a long injury lay-off and a subsequent lack of game-time at club level, but McCarthy could get an hour out of the Burnley man, play him in the number 10 role where he offers a scoring threat from distance.
However, in yesterday’s pre-match press conference McCarthy expressed some sympathy with Maguire as he was often out-numbered when the supply did reach him.
Every time the Irish have played the Georgians, they have been the possession kings.Expect Mick’s men to press higher up the field than in previous clashes in a bid to break the visitors early.
Another win over Georgia is on the cards tonight, but it won’t be easy.It’s never easy against the clever Georgians.
Republic of Ireland (probable): Randolph, Coleman, Stevens, Duffy, Keogh, Hourihane, Hendrick, Doherty, Maguire, McGoldrick, McClean.