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Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill has his game face on for Serbia clash after Robbie Keane's tearful goodbye

By Daniel McDonnell

Published 02/09/2016

Looking ahead: Republic boss Martin O’Neill believes his side’s qualifying group will be extremely tight
Looking ahead: Republic boss Martin O’Neill believes his side’s qualifying group will be extremely tight

The transfer window has closed. Robbie Keane's long goodbye is over.

This morning, the Republic of Ireland players return to the training ground with an instruction from Martin O'Neill that they should only have Serbia on their mind.

He can understand the distractions that affected some members of the group. Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Eunan O'Kane (Leeds) and Aiden McGeady (Preston) completed deals on Wednesday with the latter staying behind in the team hotel to process the paperwork of his season-long loan while the rest of the group headed for the Aviva Stadium.

That game was the Keane show, with Oman not fit for purpose as a dress rehearsal for Serbia. In polite terms, the manager admitted as much. The exercise was about giving out-of-practice individuals some time on the pitch while managing all the other events of the day.

"Tonight was getting Robbie's thing out of the way as it was his night," said Ulsterman O'Neill in the immediate aftermath.

"The second thing is the transfer deadline, but I'm not the only one in that position as there are other international managers who had to let players go for the same thing. But there is a feeling now that, tomorrow morning, when I wake up, Serbia is the total concentration."

Two years ago, another routine dismissal of Oman was followed by a campaign-opening trip to Georgia which yielded a valuable three points.

How far have the Republic come in the intervening period? O'Neill mulled over the question.

The stars of the Euros, Robbie Brady and Hendrick, were only peripheral squad members at that point, and it's hard to imagine them missing out on any games in the World Cup campaign unless injury or suspension strikes.

There hasn't been a radical overhaul in terms of personnel, but he feels the experience of a successful Euros campaign has instigated improvement.

And, in his opinion, that belief should be visible when they jog out to a ferocious atmosphere in Belgrade.

"Are we in better shape? We should be," he says. "I'm not talking about physically but mentally we should be with some of the games we've gone through.

"Listen at the end of the day, during that campaign we have taken four points off Germany, the world champions. We've had to fight against Bosnia to get through and we've had some big, big matches and over the 12 games we have come through that.

"There is a bit of strength coming through that and I actually think that somewhere along the way in those matches we had in France, I actually think that strength of knowing that we beat Germany and came through against Bosnia (was a help).

"We did fine out there and if we had a couple of more days I honestly feel we could have beaten France. But that is gone now, that is tournament football where things like that can happen. We're now back into qualification mode and getting your head around that."

Aside from three of the opening four matches being on the road again, it promises to be a different type of campaign because of the contrast between European Championships and World Cup qualification.

"Separate entities," says O'Neill.

"What I feel about this group is that the natural differences are that to qualify you need to win the group.

"Two can do it - one via a play-off - but what I think about this group is that teams would take points off each other, whereas with Germany, you always felt they would top the group and you would be fighting for second or third.

"This group now, my own view is, will be the one that will be won by the team with the least number of points (compared to other groups).

"Moldova will take points off teams too.

"From that viewpoint, while you will never be clear, you would hopefully get some points on the board early on to give yourself a chance."

The confirmed loss of James McCarthy to a groin issue for the trip to Serbia has opened up a vacancy in midfield.

Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter could come in.

"He (Arter) did fine in the (Oman) game," said O'Neill.

At the back, O'Neill indicated that John O'Shea is on course to be available but Seamus Coleman has work to do.

Coming away from Belgrade with a point would be a perfectly respectable start to another long-haul campaign.

After a ceremonial start to this gathering, the game faces should be on now.

Belfast Telegraph

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