Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill backs squad's talent but they face banana skin

By Staff Reporter

Back in February, at the Euro 2016 qualifying draw in Nice, a high-ranking UEFA official was asked his view of Georgia.

His assessment was that they were a limited side with a tendency to implode as a campaign progressed, but were dangerous on a good day. The one time that you did not want to play them, he continued, was away from home at the start of a qualifying campaign.

And so to Tbilisi tomorrow. For Martin O'Neill, his assistant Roy Keane and the rest of the travelling party, competitive fare kicks off with a banana skin.

The new expanded format of Euro 2016 has given every nation hope – a team like Georgia believes it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they can join the group of second-place contenders containing the Republic, Scotland and Poland and either sneak into an automatic spot after Germany or take third place and a play-off.

Certainly, it is plausible that they will be an important part of the battle, yet it may be more so as a barometer for the efficiency of that trio. Taking six points from Georgia could well be the difference.

In their last campaign, the former Soviet state showcased their inconsistency at home by holding Spain for 86 minutes, drawing with France and then getting turned over by Finland.

Since they have competed as an independent nation, Georgia have never taken more than six points from any qualification pool. Their reputation has been carved out over time: the stereotypical 'tough place to go' which exposes teams who are ill-prepared for the experience.

This is where good management should come to the fore. Advocates of O'Neill across his career cite the manner in which he is an expert at raising the intensity levels to the right pitch on match day.

"I want to try and get it right," he said during the week when his motivational strengths were put to him. "We have to be mentally and physically prepared. The mental aspect has to be very strong. It starts before Sunday.

"You see what sort of talent we have here and (the job) is to get every single ounce out of the players. And if they're willing to do – which I think they are – and it's just maybe to get that extra 10 per cent, maybe 10 per cent they don't think they have themselves, then this is what it's about."

But the personality of the players is only one part of the equation when we are still waiting to truly find out the personality of this O'Neill team for competitive outings.

Certain themes have emerged across his eight friendlies and, after keeping his cards relatively close to his chest personnel-wise, it is only tomorrow before kick-off that we will find out what will be put into practice.

The choice of goalkeeper is a big call, with the sense still lingering that it would be strange to bring Shay Given back and then not involve him.

"Not long ago he was probably the best 'keeper in Britain," says O'Neill, before sounding a cautious note that creates doubt about his participation.

"I think he would say himself that he has a bit of work to do. What happens if you're not playing competitive football week in week out is that you definitely lose a little bit."

Defensively, the deployment of Marc Wilson is pivotal. He can either partner John O'Shea in the heart of the back four or get the call ahead of Stephen Ward at left-full and open a central berth.

In every scenario, Seamus Coleman's impact from right-full will be pivotal, although international opponents pay very close attention to the Everton star.

Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy will anchor the midfield with Aiden McGeady on one flank, yet the identity of the other bleeds into a general debate that will tell us a lot about O'Neill's methodology.

At Sunderland, he favoured a 4-4-1-1 formation and he has largely plumped for the same in this gig, which would put Wes Hoolahan in pole position.

That would leave a straight choice between Shane Long and Robbie Keane to lead the line.

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