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World Cup 2018

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Five reasons the Republic of Ireland are struggling to secure World Cup spot

 

By Daniel McDonnell

It was Martin O'Neill who brought Seamus Coleman into discussion late on Tuesday. His presence around the Irish camp in the build-up to the loss to Serbia had apparently lifted the troops.

But it also reminded management what they were missing. In O'Neill's view, the Donegal man is a 'world-class' right-back, and his absence was felt in the double header that has left the Republic requiring a perfect finish and a few favours to make a World Cup play-off.

It's just one of five reasons the Republic of Ireland's bandwagon has derailed. Here's a look at all five:

1. No Seamus Coleman

Let's deal with that one first. Cyrus Christie is trying to fill big shoes. Unfortunately, he had a role in both of the goals conceded in the past week.

And while the Middlesbrough recruit bombs forward with intent, he just lacks the quality and composure of Killybegs' finest.

The Republic are always going to miss a player with Coleman's ability. Therefore, it's easy to highlight the turning point of a campaign that was going swimmingly last November when James McClean nabbed a winner in a controlled second-half display in Vienna.

Wales were on the ropes when they came to Dublin in March, and neither side had impressed very much in a derby-style affair when Neil Taylor's lunge on Coleman had devastating consequences.

That game had draw written all over it and left the Republic in a strong position. What followed was flaccid displays against Austria and Georgia, only enlivened by late rallies.

Coleman had dragged the Irish over the line against Georgia in the Aviva meeting, but similar leadership was lacking in Tbilisi. That turned Tuesday into a high-pressure match.

After gaining undeserved results along the way, it's hard to argue with third place in the group on the overall strength of their performances. With a fit Coleman all the way through, it's not a stretch to suggest they would be in a better place.

2. The loss of Wes Hoolahan

There are people who believe his importance is overstated but it's not what Wes Hoolahan does in isolation. It's what he does for the players around him.

Hoolahan started the victories over Moldova and Austria, with his creativity setting up McClean's winner in the latter.

Since then, the playmaker has been involved in 80 minutes out of a possible 360. He missed the Welsh match with a setback.

He was then benched until the final 20 minutes against Austria where the Republic mounted a comeback.

The 35-year-old then sat out the entirety of the Tbilisi affair before coming in for an hour on Tuesday. O'Neill says a tight groin was troubling him.

The Republic don't have another player like Hoolahan, and that's why the banging of the drum is justified when a team is sent into battle without him. His central role in all of the big performances in the past two campaigns is not a coincidence.

3. Growing pains for young duo

Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were expected to take centre stage after starring at Euro 2016. They have struggled to cope with the responsibility.

That said, Hendrick's availability would have helped over the past week and Brady will always be selected when available.

What is notable, though, is that both have toiled when selected in an advanced role - Hendrick v Austria and Brady v Georgia - and actually seemed quite unsure of themselves.

Hoolahan's comfort in that position is striking by comparison. Perhaps Brady and Hendrick need a little more direction - and the chopping and changing of sides and their versatility has stunted their progress.

4. Striking woes

Shane Long has not had a good year with Southampton and he has failed to ignite in a green shirt too. Despite that, O'Neill left him on the pitch for every minute of the September double header. Jon Walters was carrying a knock and also put in the full shift.

Neither looked especially sharp in the dying stages of Tuesday's match but there were no alternatives on the bench once Daryl Murphy was introduced for Hoolahan.

David McGoldrick missed out for personal reasons while Kevin Doyle was cut from the long list.

Sean Maguire is in form at Preston. It took until June for O'Neill to go and see him in the flesh this year and realise the extent of his improvement.

Scott Hogan, meanwhile, was slow to commit for his own reasons. If Hogan and Maguire had been around the squad before now, they might have been considered as viable options.

After all, O'Neill did throw the relatively inexperienced Conor Hourihane in for the final 12 minutes on Tuesday.

A goal-poaching striker with the ability to anticipate flicks would have added something.

5. Poor game management

Wales were down to 10 men for the final 15 minutes in Dublin. Serbia were in the same position for 22 minutes on Tuesday as well.

The Republic were blunt when presented with that situation. They might miss Coleman but they still had 11 men on the park. The decision making was chronically poor with players trying to force things instead of coherently seizing the lifeline.

They didn't look prepared for that scenario and the frantic nature of the dying stages of every qualifier in 2017 is telling. Things have happened by accident rather than design.

Age profile

Maybe it's just a simple case that time has caught up with this squad across the group.

O'Neill now concedes Glenn Whelan didn't have the legs for the two games.

Hoolahan is a veteran, but his fitness levels are underestimated. But the legs of McClean and Brady next to David Meyler gave the Irish a real spark.

Whelan brought experience, but at this stage it's possible that the Republic just need a fresher face in that position.

James McCarthy's best international displays have come when he has taken over that brief from Whelan.

All of the aforementioned attackers are in their 30s too. If the Republic are to operate at a higher tempo, they need a sprinkling of low-mileage options. O'Neill has tried to promote Callum O'Dowda, a player who cannot get a prolonged run of games at Bristol City. This is one area where the manager has an excuse. He can only work with what's available.

If next month ends badly, the finger-pointing should go beyond the manager and encourage debate on the player development skills of the national association. A marquee managerial appointment may only be a short-term fix.

Belfast Telegraph

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