Ireland bring the curtain down on their World Cup group qualifiers against Wales hoping to prolong the campaign to at least the play-offs.
In what has been a turbulent year of qualifiers, Ireland now have the opportunity to grab a play-off spot should they beat the Euro 2016 semi-finalists on their home patch. The Welsh go into the game without Gareth Bale, a huge loss given his standing in world football but certainly not their only quality footballer.
Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen are just a couple of other household names but any of the members of this very together Welsh squad could hurt Ireland tonight. Ireland’s answer to Gareth Bale, Seamus Coleman is also missing after his well documented leg break in the home fixture against Chris Coleman’s side.
Ireland secured a 0-0 draw in that tie with a depleted side, a game they could have won after Neill Taylor gave Ireland the numerical advantage. On the night, James McClean showed plenty of heart in an emotional game, rattling Gareth Bale and stamping his authority physically. However, one thing McClean and his teammates didn’t do that night was create a host of chances.
This has been a feature of Ireland’s game in this campaign. They had one shot on target against the Welsh, three against Austria, Serbia and a poor Moldova side. six came against Georgia away which shows how little Ireland have created in their last several games.
The Boys in Green are often praised for their heart, passion and physicality which is rarely absent even on the darkest of days. However, these World Cup qualifiers have shown that these important attributes count for very little if the footballing ability, creativity and of course the goals are absent.
The likes of Glenn Whelan have shown nothing but commitment in an Ireland jersey and has received much unnecessary flack. However, the notion that ‘running all day’ alone will suffice is a foolish argument. Whelan has paid for only having this feature to his game with being dropped for Ireland last two games.
McClean has been one of the heroes of this campaign. However this should not make him immune to criticism. McClean’s decision making has been questionable at times with poor creative performances against Austria, Georgia and Serbia almost ignored because of his exploits early on in the campaign.
His presence is so important to setting Ireland’s tempo but his creativity may be required more than his aggression tonight if Ireland are to secure a victory.
With a win needed, Ireland will need to create chances and secure a win. The poor return of shots on target will need to be put right and this will start with Martin O’Neill’s team selection. If the Derryman goes for physicality, loyalty and heart alone, Ireland may get a result but not necessarily a result to see them through. O’Neill’s system will also have a huge bearing with a more open system essential in what is a must win.
Wes Hoolahan and Callum O’Dowda showed a creative intent against Moldova, two players that have been used sparingly this campaign.
Robbie Brady will return tonight with the likes of Eunan O’Kane and Conor Hourihane also capable of creating chances and making something out of nothing.
Reinventing the wheel will not be high up O’Neill’s agenda but when the win is essential, its do or die in terms of O’Neill’s encouragement of attacking play. The 4-4-2 diamond variation heralded victories over Germany, Italy and Bosnia. This system was fluid but also contained plenty of fight, passion and heart. It is living proof that a blend of both is essential, but not just heart alone.
Tonight’s game will be a battle that will require the likes of McClean putting in the hard yards but without creativity, innovation and of course the goals, Ireland can forget about a play-off place. The passion against 10-man Wales, the strong finish against Austria and the spirited loss to Austria were simply not enough when creativity was cried out for. Ireland can play to their passionate strengths but O’Neill must also be prepared to let off the shackles.
Despite the negative views of fans in this campaign, this Irish team could be good enough to go to a World Cup.
A team who defeats Germany and Italy competitively not to mention a friendly victory over Uruguay are certainly no pushover and won’t fear the Welsh.
Tonight, only the result matters but the one Ireland need will not be possible without creativity. A morale victory or brave performance in the face of a loss has become all to familiar for Irish fans, it is time for Martin O’Neill’s side to turn the tides by combining heart and creativity in the search for a win.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena