Ireland a stronger unit after Euros experience: Martin O'Neill
MARTIN O’NEILL believes the Republic of Ireland are stronger for their Euro 2016 finals experience as they open up their 2018 World Cup qualification account against Serbia in Belgrade on Monday night.
As another two-year qualification race begins for a place at the World Cup finals in Russia, O’Neill feels more at ease heading into his second campaign as Ireland boss: “We should be in better shape, mentally, because of some of the games we’ve come through,” said O’Neill after Ireland’s 4-0 friendly win over Oman on Wednesday night.
“At the end of the day, we took four points off Germany in European qualification - the world champions - we fought against Bosnia to get through to the Euro finals [via the play-offs], so we’ve had some big, big games and come through.”
The Republic reached the knock-out stages in France, losing narrowly to the hosts in an epic encounter in Lyon. The Irish have been grouped with Serbia, Austria, Moldova, Georgia and Wales in World Cup qualification.
“I think those matches we had in France helped,” O’Neill added.
“Going into the Italy game [in Lille] on the back of losing to Belgium, we felt it wasn’t that long ago we beat Germany and came through against Bosnia. We did fine out there and if we’d a few more days [rest], I honestly think we could have beaten France. But that’s gone now. That’s tournament football, where those things can happen. We’re now in qualification mode again and we’re just getting our heads around that now.”
While the experiences of France this summer should stand to the Republic, O’Neill feels more comfortable on the international stage: “Obviously, heading out to Georgia two years ago [Ireland’s first Euro 2016 Qualifier], it was a difficult task at the time.
“You’re not sure - you’ve had the players for a number of games before that, we had a trip to America and playing players all over the pitch. So really, you were going into that Georgia game with a lot of concern around the team.
“I don’t have concern about the team now, I know the team a bit better. I was very concerned about the match in Georgia, but Aiden [McGeady] came up trumps and scores a great goal to win the game for us. After that game, I said those three points might prove vital - every point you get is of vital importance. But I think we have to push the Euros to the side now. It’s gone. It was a great experience. The trip to France via the 12 games was a long haul and it felt a long haul at the time. You look at this fixture list and we have three of our first four games away from home [Serbia, Moldova and Austria].”
While O’Neill instinctively felt Germany would finish top of their European qualification group, he doesn’t envisage any runaway leaders in their 2018 World Cup qualification group: “I thought, in the Euros, Germany would top the group and we would be fighting for second or third place," he added.
"I think, in this campaign, teams will take points off each other. Looking at other groups, I think our group will be won with the least number of points, which is no bad thing. I think Moldova will take points off teams too. While you’ll never get clear, we’ll try to get some points on the board early on to give ourselves a chance. That’s how I feel about it.”
O’Neill, who has yet to put pen to paper on a new deal with the FAI although everything's been agreed in principle, added: “I think we have a bit more experience around us, some of the players have a bit more confidence about their game now, so that should help. Like anything, confidence is sometimes temporary. It can erode very, very quickly.
“I don’t want to be sounding negative at all here because I’m looking forward to this campaign immensely. There is total concentration on Serbia now.”