Shane Long, who has been the hero on several occasions for the Boys in Green, is set to miss Ireland’s do-or-die clash with Wales in Cardiff.
Perhaps what will be considered the defining moment of Long’s international career came on October 8, 2015 when he hared onto Darren Randolph’s long kick-out leaving the Germany defence in his wake before rifling his shot past arguably the best goalkeeper in world football, Manuel Neuer.
It was a moment that encapsulated that qualifying campaign. From that moment on Long was a guaranteed starter.
Since then he has endured an awful time in front of goal, however. As has been highly publicised at the this stage, he’s only managed to notch one goal in 42 appearances for club and country.
His poor run was brought into acute focus by his performance on Friday night against group whipping boys Moldova. Long had three gilt-edged opportunities to end his drought.
The first was put on a plate by the impressive Callum O’Dowda but in his eagerness to score Long didn’t let the ball come far enough across his body onto his right foot. As a result he struck the ball with his heel instead of his instep sending it wide of the post. Following this miss, Long went in one-on-one with keeper Ilie Cebanu who, if Murphy’s two goals were anything to go by, couldn’t stop a draught, but Long blasted it straight at the keeper.
The third and final chance was an open goal for a left-footed finish. Long got his angles all wrong and went with the instep of his right boot. Once again the ball sailed wide of the post and Long’s frustration was plain to see as he hiked up his shorts and howled to the heavens.
We won’t be afforded three chances of such quality against Wales. We didn’t even managed to keep the ball well against Moldova, only mustering 43 per cent of the possession. With the form Long is in there would have been no confidence if another rare, clear sight of goal were to fall his way.
As things stand Daryl Murphy is coming off a brace, his three goals in this campaign have earned us four vital points. He’s been around the squad for years – always the bridesmaid never the bride. Cardiff could be his big chance to stake a claim for a starting place should we go to Russia. At 34 this could be the Indian summer of his career.
Another possible result of Long missing the game is that it gives O’Neill the opportunity to play one of his wildcards. Murphy was the beneficiary of one of O’Neill’s surprise selections when he started against Italy in France. This time around all the signs point to Sean Maguire.
The Kilkenny man is a player brimming with confidence and may be somewhat of any unknown quantity for the Welsh. His movement worries defenders, his touch, sharpness and eye for goal are good enough to make an impact at this level. He’s unlikely to start but could have an impact from the bench.
A year ago it would seem insane to suggest Ireland may be better off without Shane Long. But in a do-or-die game like this, where chances will be hard to come by, we need a more clinical edge on the end of them.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena