Irish eyes could be smiling in Tbilisi with Aaron Connolly adding the magic dust
2020 European Qualifying Group D: Georgia v Republic of Ireland: (today, Boris Paichadze National Arena, 2pm Irish time)
AT this rate, the Republic of Ireland players must be on first name terms with their Georgian counterparts and the ground staff at the Boris Paichadze National Arena in Tbilisi.
Since Euro 2004 qualification, the two sides have been grouped together no fewer than five times in pursuit of a major finals place.
In all, they’ve played each other 10 times, including one friendly game in Dublin six years ago.
The narrative has generally been Georgia outplay the Republic, but the Republic end up winning.
The Irish have won eight competitive encounters against one of the better minnows in Europe and conceded just one draw.
Brian Kerr got his competitive record off to the perfect start as senior manager with a 2-1 win back in March 2003 before Giovanni Trapattoni’s side laboured to back-to-back Qualifier wins in their ill-fated pursuit of a place at the 2010 World Cup finals.
Aiden McGeady’s two wonder strikes in Tbilisi back in September 2014 helped Martin O’Neill forge a path to Euro 2016 in France, but it was the scratchy 1-1 draw in the Georgian capital three years later which saw the wheels buckle for the first time under O’Neill.
Arguably the best display against the possession-based Georgians was Ireland’s 1-0 win in Dublin back in March, courtesy of Conor Hourihane’s fine free-kick.
Although Georgia rattled Ireland’s upright in the second half that night, the most encouraging aspect of Mick McCarthy’s approach and where it differed markedly to Martin O’Neill’s philosophy was the team’s desire to press higher up the pitch.
For the most part, it worked in the Irish capital. Trying to do the same in hotter conditions – temperatures could rise to 22-23 degrees in Tbilisi this evening – and after an arduous five-hour flight it might be more difficult to pull off.
“It will depend on how much possession we allow them to have I guess and how much we have,” said McCarthy at yesterday’s pre-match press conference.
“They’re a very possession-based, technical team; they always try to get on the ball, they try to dominate you and pen you back which I’ve seen them do. We have to try and make sure they don’t, that’s with the ball and without the ball, try to keep it and be possession-based ourselves here because it might be 25 degrees when we’re playing as well.
“That might have an effect, I’m sure it will… We are going to have to be equally good with the ball and without it because they’re a really good side. The second half against Denmark [in Tbilisi last month, which finished scoreless] was a good performance.”
Georgia have virtually no chance of breaching the top two qualification berths in Group D but they will want to keep momentum and morale high ahead of their Nations League play-off in March.
Nevertheless, Mick McCarthy’s squad are in a good place entering the Boris Paichadze National Arena this evening.
They are unbeaten after five rounds of games – including two 1-1 draws against fancied sides Denmark and Switzerland – and if they could pull off two wins against Georgia today and the Swiss in Geneva on Tuesday night they will qualify for the Euro 2020 finals with a game to spare.
So far, fortune has favoured McCarthy. At one point it looked as though he would be without three of his back four for this evening's clash following Enda Stevens’ suspension, Shane Duffy’s injury problems and Richard Keogh’s knee injury sustained in a car accident.
But Derry man Duffy has since shrugged off a calf injury and declared himself for the upcoming double header while John Egan’s impressive club form for Sheffield United eases Ireland’s central defensive worries.
And Wolves full-back Matt Doherty is a ready-made replacement for the suspended Stevens at left back.
David ‘Didsy’ McGoldrick has been Ireland’s talisman in this campaign but is ruled out of the Georgian clash through injury - and his chances of making the Swiss tie are deemed “slim” by the manager – but Aaron Connolly’s dramatic ascent eases McCarthy’s worries at the other end of the pitch.
Connolly's brilliant form for Ireland’s U21s and his two-goal salvo for Brighton against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend almost guarantees he’ll play some part in Tbilisi tonight, although Luton Town target man James Collins is expected to deputise for McGoldrick.
But when he was asked to compare the precocious youngster Connolly to retired record goal-scorer Robbie Keane, the manager was keen to burst any sense of hype before a possible senior debut.
“If you don't mind I will wait and see him have a few games and see how he does before I start comparing him to Robbie Keane in any shape or form,” McCarthy said.
“I think we should just let him make his debut when he does, let's see how he does. I would love to be comparing him to Robbie at some stage but I'm not going to start that now.”
Given tough upcoming fixtures against Switzerland (Tuesday) and Denmark (Monday November 18 in Dublin) and the finely balanced nature of Group D, a win over the Georgians is absolutely crucial as it tightens the screw once more on the chasing Danes and Swiss, both of whom clash later today in Copenhagen.
“We are coming to try and win the game,” McCarthy insisted.
“I just don’t get anybody who thinks we should come here and just win this game, especially having seen them against Denmark and how they played, and actually how they played at our place.
“We had a few chances and could have scored more, but they had a couple of really good chances; Darren Randolph made a couple of good saves. They had a threat from free-kicks and corners, they’ve got big guys. We are coming to try and win it but if we take a point away, we’ll have to be happy with it.”
With Connolly expected to be sprung from the bench in the final quarter, the Irish are capable of leaving Tbilisi with all three points and a Euro finals spot could be within touching distance...