Belfast Telegraph

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill eager to tackle Ronaldo

By Daniel McDonnell

The end of the Republic of Ireland's summer gathering is approaching and, even if it finishes without a win, Martin O'Neill says it has gone better than he expected when the itinerary was originally devised.

Portugal round off proceedings at the Metlife Stadium tomorrow morning (00.45am BST) and O'Neill feels that a side sitting fourth in the Fifa rankings might well provide the toughest test from a three-week window that has consisted of draws with Italy and Costa Rica and defeat to Turkey.

In his mind, results were secondary to other aspects of team-building and his primary concern was that a four-game series at the end of a long campaign would cause unrest in the dressing room.

A player friendly approach facilitating the requests of those with personal commitments seems to have satisfied the camp.

While certain individuals were allowed to come and go, the uncertainty over the future of Roy Keane became a prevailing theme and O'Neill has said that he will speak further about his assistant's situation when the Portuguese match is out of the way, with Aston Villa's interest in a jobshare at the top of the agenda.

O'Neill affirmed that he expected Keane to be part of the Irish road ahead. "Very much so," he enthused.

Observers of the team's training sessions have noted Keane's jovial mood, with the Cork man striking up a rapport with the squad.

Showcasing his own brand of humour, it was O'Neill, with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, who joked that the calm was unlikely to last for too long.

"Do I expect him to blow up one day?" he asked himself.

"Absolutely, yeah, of course. It will probably come today. We can deal with all of that.

"I said that from day one, he was excellent around the players and he's added little bits here. He's also only retired not that long ago, so he's still an iconic figure. Players would relate to him in that aspect."

That reverence would extend to the globally recognisable figure in the opposition dressing room.

The promotion of this game around New York has centred on the possible involvement of Cristiano Ronaldo and there will be a sense of deflation for the punters that bought tickets in advance if he doesn't figure.

A crowd of 50,000 is expected at a new venue which is adjacent to the site of the old Giants Stadium and the 29-year-old's face was plastered all over the promotional material. He sat out Friday's meeting with Mexico due to his recurring thigh problem and, while his colleague Vieirinha suggested on Sunday that the star turn would play if he was fit, it would be a surprise if Portuguese management took unnecessary risks.

The percentage call is that he will come off the bench, with the dilemma facing coach Paulo Bento advertised by the pain that other countries have suffered with big names such as Marco Reus, Franck Ribery and Riccardo Montolivo cut down.

Keane is a huge admirer of Ronaldo and O'Neill emphasised that point. "Roy has the highest opinion of him both as a player – which we obviously all have – and as a person as well," said the 62-year old.

"He says he's a great person. I'm passing that on. If that message ever gets to him, tell him that Roy Keane still holds him in the highest regard. I'm sure Ronaldo would be delighted with that."

To a man, every Irish player asked about this fixture have said they would prefer if the Ballon d'Or winner – who received Robbie Keane's vote – was part of this occasion. "The players want him to play in the game so they can test themselves," said O'Neill.

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