Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2018

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Criticism has followed us but we're still unbeaten, says determined Ireland manager

Rep of Ireland v Serbia, World Cup Group D qualifier: Aviva Stadium, Tonight, 7.45pm

By Daniel McDonnell

After the trials and tribulations of Tbilisi, the Republic of Ireland squad wound up in Nuremberg on Saturday.

The purpose was a refuelling stop, the consequence of the FAI's change of travel strategy midway through the Trapattoni era which means travelling on a smaller charter flight without media and supporters. With greater numbers, jetting straight home from Georgia would be viable.

But they had to take a break in Belgium on the way over and Germany on the way home and the latter stop did not go to plan.

"It took a little bit longer than normal," said manager Martin O'Neill yesterday, volunteering the information when pressed on the impact of the tight turnaround on the bodies.

The selling point of the current set-up is that it gives the management and squad some privacy and they probably wanted to be alone in their thoughts following a dreadfully disappointing showing that has turned this evening's encounter with Serbia into a must-win game.

O'Neill's spiky TV exchange in the aftermath of the Georgian fixture highlighted his disdain for any detractors and leaves the impression that offering him the opportunity for a quicker trip home with them on board might have posed a dilemma.

Sometimes that noise is a helpful distraction, though, and it can even be used in a strange way to galvanise the side and draw a response.

Defiance tends to bring the best out of Irish teams and the language from the top table at the pre-match press conference hinted at a determination to put things right at the Aviva.

O'Neill was keen to stress all the times that his men have been written off before.

"In the three years I've been involved competitively, the criticism has followed around, you know," he said.

"After the Scotland game in November (2014), a month after we'd drawn against Germany in Germany, we lost the game and it was doom and gloom.

"We drew with Scotland in June the following year and it was doom and gloom. And we were the ones that went to the Euros and performed very well. If we'd had one or two days after we'd beaten Italy, we may well have turned France over.

"And we've gone on from this to remain unbeaten. We haven't lost a competitive game despite some poor 25 minutes, half-an-hours, or even 45 minutes, as it was the other night. We remain unbeaten and those sort of things keep you going. The players sometimes have to be reminded of that.

"The criticism is not going to win or lose you a game. It's what you do on the field that matters and if we play very strongly, we can win the game."

His squad should have no reason to think otherwise because they have defeated better sides than Serbia.

The group leaders are also unbeaten but, similar to Ireland, they have relied on some late goals to dress up their points tally and have conceded first in four of their seven games.

They were on the way to losses in both of their meetings with Wales until Aleksandar Mitrovic levelled things up in the final 15 minutes.

Georgia led against them and wasted chances to extend their advantage before falling to pieces in the second half. Austria caused Slavoljub Muslin's men plenty of problems in a 3-2 defeat. Certainly, the group leaders have serious attacking talent in their ranks.

However, they give teams opportunities at the other end and Ireland know that having scored twice in a scatty game on the opening day of this campaign.

Granted, the Serbs were without Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov, but they have shown vulnerabilities when that experienced duo have been available.

The key for the Republic is to get their house in order. A radical tactical change is unlikely, yet O'Neill has indicated that he will freshen things up. Playing strongly means an aggressive display with better application, pressing opponents high and using the ball better.

Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady are two players vying to come into the XI and they have niggling injury problems. Jeff Hendrick is out. The main question in a reshuffle involves the deployment of Robbie Brady and it's possible that one of Glenn Whelan or Harry Arter could miss out.

Alternatively, using Brady on the left of midfield would free up James McClean to operate centrally as he did in a bright finish in Tbilisi.

This is do-or-die territory. In all likelihood, Ireland will drop to third place if they do not take three points. Win and they're in control at the top ahead of October's double header. This is the crossroads on any potential trip to Russia; bad first-half displays have cost the team in this group and a bright start is essential.

"What we want to try and do is get on the front foot against a really talented side," said O'Neill. "We've found ways before and we'll find ways again."

They will need a full petrol tank to get this job done.

Belfast Telegraph

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