With Ireland versus Wales quickly approaching, a lot of sleep will be lost over the news that Gareth Bale is not only back from injury but also hitting form.
It has almost become a recurrent theme that Irish fans obsess over the star man or men in a national team and how they will be the only ones to hurt Ireland. Our last World Cup campaign possibly backs up that sentiment with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Alaba handily dispatching Giovanni Trapattoni’s charges.
The reality is that any player can make the difference regardless of profile or form but it is easy to focus on the biggest name on the team sheet and essentially the likes of Hal Robson-Kanu or Tom Lawrence could be the men to shine in Dublin. Thankfully under Martin O’Neill, Ireland are becoming a side that refuses to fear an individual and have managed to play to their own strengths, despite what many seem as a squad full of limitations lacking one game-changing player.
Turn the clock back to the autumn of 2015. Ireland had been drawn against Bosnia and Herzegovina which resulted in mixed emotions for Irish fans and players alike. The Bosnians had put in an admirable performance at the World Cup the previous year but traditionally would be considered a team Ireland could beat. However, two names regularly emerged in the build up to the game, Eden Dzeko and Marelem Pjanic. The latter was in the form of his life at the time.
Many felt that these two players would carry Bosnia and be the deciding factor in the tie, especially given Ireland’s lack of a player equating to the quality pair. Although Dzeko scored in the home tie, Ireland played Bosnia off the pitch at the Aviva securing their place at the Euros. A similar scenario occurred when Ireland made Sweden look very average despite months fearing the wrath of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In this campaign, David Alaba, who hurt Ireland in the past, struggled to make an impact against Ireland as his side went down in Vienna.
The recurring theme here is that in recent games under Martin O’Neill, Ireland have failed to let one player dictate proceedings and have caused teams carried by an individual to crumble. There is no doubting the phenomenal togetherness of the Welsh team but this qualifying campaign has showed that apart from Bale, Allen and possibly Ramsey, they are nothing too special and are certainly reliant on the trio. However a positive result against the Euro 2016 semi-finalists will be down to how unwelcome Ireland make these key men feel just like Dzeko, Pjanic, Ibrahimovic and Alaba felt.
Sometimes people forget that Ireland have been more than capable of putting it up to teams with several world class players. Germany came to Dublin as world champions but because of their title, Ireland and their fans did not overthink the threat of one or two individuals because essentially the whole team was a menace. The same could be said for Ireland’s victory over Italy. Although considered Italy’s second string, it was 11 men of the highest quality that fell to Ireland rather than fear of a couple of players.
Although considered Italy’s second string, it was 11 men of the highest quality that fell to Ireland rather than fear of a couple of players.
Failing to beat the best was the precedent under Kerr, Staunton and Trapattoni with too many moral victories following a loss or draw deemed acceptable. However, under O’Neill, Ireland can beat anyone on their day and not because of one remarkable player carrying the side game-on-game. Individuals have risen to the occasion with Jon Walters, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean being prime examples of the recent past. What has empowered them to do so is the platform provided by the men around them and the expert approach of O’Neill.
There is no disputing Gareth Bale’s talent but O’Neill will undoubtedly have a plan A, B and many more of how to handle the Real Madrid star. O’Neill’s primary concern will most likely be how to stop the Welsh as a whole. Chris Coleman plays with an unusual 5-3-1-1 where he doubles up on attacking fullbacks with Bale given a free role in front of the influential Allen and Ramsey. Therefore exploiting Wale’s bareness in width could be the priority rather than handling Bale.
Ireland are in an unfamiliar situation where everything is there to be lost as they sit top of the group. Bale will cause concern, not to mention Ramsey and Allen but this Welsh side were held at home to Georgia and Serbia and were lucky to escape Vienna with a draw against what is a poor Austrian side. Ireland will be confident going into the game and just like recent successes against the bigger nations, approach the game without fear.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena