Republic of Ireland to protect their unbeaten record against Wales
2018 World Cup Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland v Wales (tonight, Aviva Stadium, 7.45pm)
SITTING at the summit of their qualification group as the halfway point approaches is not a position the Republic of Ireland are used to finding themselves in.
For as long as time can remember the Irish have always been reaching – stretching, even – for the familiar play-off berth.
That’s been the height of their ambitions in trying to chisel a route towards a major tournament.
In the past, top spot was never really a viable option.
But they’ll take this lofty position as they prepare for the visit of Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales in Dublin tonight.
The qualification landscape can change quite dramatically on any given international week – but there is no reason why the Republic can’t avoid the play-off gauntlet and reach the 2018 World Cup finals automatically.
After all, they don’t have the daunting shadow of a Germany or an Italy hanging over them in qualification.
The Irish well and truly burst Austria’s qualification bubble in November; Wales have been brought back down to earth following Group D slip-ups against Georgia and Serbia (two draws), while an intimidating trip to Serbia has already been negotiated by the Irish (2-2).
Put simply, the Irish have nothing to fear in their quest for automatic qualification.
Still, like group leaders Ireland, Wales and Serbia still have unbeaten records in the group and, as O’Neill suggested, there is still “some distance” to travel before talk of another successful qualification campaign under the Kilrea man.
“I think the players are confident,” said O’Neill.
“We’ve 10 points on the board, three of those games have been away from home.
“But there’s a distance to go. We’re looking at halfway through the campaign and teams are capable of taking points of each other.”
Rather than highlight Wales’ inability to hold onto their 1-0 advantage against the Serbs four months ago, O’Neill insists Chris Coleman’s side have been unlucky.
“Football games change so quickly. For instance, the Welsh game against Serbia [in Cardiff], Gareth Bale hits the post for Wales in the 83rd minute of the match.
“If it goes in, it makes it 2-0. Within 60 seconds Serbia have equalised. These sorts of things happen in football all the time.
“I don’t think they’re suffering,” added the Ireland manager.
“I think expectations [for Wales] are very, very high after their exploits in France. They have some excellent players in the side, and a world-class player in Gareth Bale.
“The Georgia game [1-1 against Wales] was never going to be easy for them. We played them a few days earlier and they played brilliantly against us in the first half, so the games are not easy.
“Are they suffering? I don’t see that at all. Wales are capable of winning football matches, home or away.”
Despite a raft of injuries and the suspension of key player Robbie Brady, the Republic team to start against Wales tonight will still have a very familiar look about it – and will probably be more experienced than the one that knocked Austria out of the running in Vienna four months ago.
John O’Shea and Richard Keogh – the latter unlucky not to start more games in this campaign – will come in for injured central defensive pair Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy.
Harry Arter’s absence paves the way for the return of James McCarthy in central midfield alongside Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick.
Jon Walters and Shane Long will almost certainly start in attack with the one recognised wide berth going to James McClean.
The latter was given permission to leave the Irish camp earlier this week to pay his respects at the home of Derry City captain Ryan McBride, who died tragically at the weekend.
O’Neill yesterday rejected the notion that McClean might struggle to focus on tonight’s Welsh clash.
“James plays with emotion anyway,” countered O’Neill.
“People talk about playing with your heart on your sleeve – that’s exactly James, literally.
“So, no, I don’t have any problems with that. As soon as the game begins James is an emotional character and I think he’ll be fully focussed on the game.”
Man-for-man, the Welsh are technically better than their hosts.
Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen are two midfield metronomes that will pose major threats to Ireland and are adept at funnelling quality ball to their game-winner Gareth Bale who has bagged 23 goals in 50 international appearances.
Arguably, though, there is more pressure on the visitors to win tonight to re-establish their qualification credentials and to prove that they're not a flash in the pan on the international stage.
Last week, Jonathan Walters goaded the Welsh camp for making a movie about reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
“I don’t think we’d make a film [about reaching the semi-finals],” noted Walters.
And at yesterday’s press conference Seamus Coleman insisted that there would be no warm embraces for his Everton club colleague and Welsh skipper Ashley Williams in the tunnel.
“I’ll have the green shirt on and not the blue one on,” said Coleman. T
“That’s where my full focus is. I’ve got to know Ashley quite well and got very close to him at club level, he’s a great lad. But when I have that green shirt on that’s all I care about.”
Coleman was also keen to stress the improvement of the Irish team since their own Euro campaign in France last summer.
“When the manager came in we were in a sticky spell but slowly but surely we started to get that confidence and played some very big games,” said the Killybegs man.
“Obviously going back to Shane Long’s goal against Germany, then the night in Bosnia and the Italy game [in France].
“All those games give you confidence. You think you can beat most teams that you play.
“Obviously Wales have their own story as well – they had a great Euros and have some good players coming through, so it’s a great tie for the neutral.”
In front of a sell-out crowd, the Irish players will be keen to get touch-tight to Ramsey, Allen and Bale in the early stages to rattle their composure.
Expect some feisty moments.
Expect James McClean to wear his heart on his sleeve.
Expect Gareth Bale to feel McClean’s passion at some point.
Expect the Republic not to lose. Wales, though, will have similar ambitions.
A share of the spoils is the likely outcome - but it won't be without incident.
Republic of Ireland (probable): Randolph, Coleman, Ward, O’Shea, Keogh, Whelan, McCarthy, Hendrick, Walters, Long, McClean