Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland should fear nobody in crunch play-offs

By Daniel McDonnell

Group D is over and, during a worrying summer, there was a danger of it spelling disaster for Martin O'Neill's Ireland.

In the end, there was disappointment after failing to score the second half goal in Warsaw that would have completed a daring run-up the rails to sneak automatic qualification and book a summer trip to France.

If Richard Keogh had dispatched his header with ten minutes to go, the tone of the debrief would have changed dramatically. O'Neill's decision to gamble on Aiden McGeady, whose skill created the sitter that the centre half missed, would have gone down as a masterstroke. C'est la vie.

This is a fair outcome. Across the group, Ireland didn't do enough to claim a top two berth. O'Neill is right to essentially point out that the league table never lies and that taking four points from Germany is an achievement that an over-confident Scotland side could not replicate. Flopping in Tbilisi removed Gordon Strachan's right to feel hard done by.

Still, a total of two points from the four matches with the Scots and Poles means Ireland can have few complaints about winding up in the familiar tension of the two-legged decider.

Victorious Polish boss Adam Nawalka stopped to wish O'Neill luck on his way to a press conference where he was enthusiastically applauded into the room by the Warsaw media. The Derryman, who was talking to the Irish newspapers at the time, returned the greeting and then continued his reflections that mixed an honest assessment of the game with pangs of regret.

"Even though we put them under pressure, we didn't create that many chances," he said, "Some of our deliveries were actually not all that good. But we were still a whisker away from making it to France. And the fellow who's just said 'good luck' would have been on a knife-edge at the end of the game."

The stunning defeat of the world champions bred hope, while Warsaw provided a reminder of how setbacks like Wes Hoolahan's ailments and Shane Long's premature departure can impact on the options at O'Neill disposal.

It also raised questions about the changes he made in midfield between the two games which impacted on the usefulness of James McCarthy. Play-offs are generally a method of deciding the fate of teams that showcased their good and bad sides along the way. The last week has demonstrated why, heading into next month, Ireland fans have reasons to be both fearful and cheerful.

The obvious worry relates to the availability of key players. John O'Shea and Jon Walters are the only two ever present members of their Euros tilt and the experienced duo will miss the first leg. Naturally enough, O'Neill wants to be drawn at home second but heading into a difficult away match without that pair would be particularly troublesome. Either way, it's bad news; especially if Ciaran Clark and Marc Wilson report short of game-time. The available goalkeepers have work to do too.

Ireland missed Hoolahan badly on Sunday - the outrage over his exclusion is a non-issue because the Norwich man accepted he only had 20/25 minutes in him - and the men in green were simply too one-dimensional without him against a physical force that revelled in an aerial battle.

In September, O'Neill said that the 33-year-old had the energy of a teenager yet he's playing regularly for his club now and arrived with a heel problem and muscular injury which are essentially the product of wear and tear.

Goals are an issue; leaving aside the Gibraltar contests, the only match in the group where Ireland scored more than once was the McGeady show in Georgia.

Meanwhile, at Everton, Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy need to stay healthy while McGeady simply has to start playing games. The centre of the park poses a dilemma for the boss.

Glenn Whelan has served Ireland well and is picked for Stoke because he is a trustworthy performer. But McCarthy is the best midfielder in the squad and selecting him as the shield last Thursday allowed the Glaswegian to showcase that. Understandably enough, losing O'Shea and Walters would make it hard for management to leave out another battle hardened individual who has been around the block. His retention could stifle the impact of a quality performer.

"If you beat the world champions, I think you have to feel you've made some progress considering the last time they had played at the Aviva, the Germans won 6-1," said O'Neill.

The display against Germany is the reference point for believing this group can get the job done. Following it up was always going to be a challenge; a play-off is a totally different type of double header with the 180th minute outcome the only result that matters. O'Neill crafted a plan against the Germans which was effective whereas the Polish preparation was a bit rushed.

Memories of Belgium and Turkey and Paris shape fears about what lies ahead but the majority of this group have not experienced play-off pain. It appears that they will be unseeded and therefore face a tricky test, yet the possible options have all finished third because they have demonstrated vulnerability.

Take, for example, Bosnia getting thrashed in Israel and a Swedish team with Zlatan going four goals behind at home to Austria last month. Ireland have no reason to be afraid.

Belfast Telegraph