Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill positive in wake of first defeat as Republic of Ireland manager

By Daniel McDonnell

Late on Wednesday night, deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium, Martin O'Neill's gut feeling was that defeat to Serbia was no bad thing.

Certainly, the 62-year-old was frustrated by aspects of the Republic's performance, acknowledging the flaws in the second half display. However, after a brief preparation for a stand-alone fixture sandwiched between his players' club commitments, he shunned despondency.

The mood did contrast significantly from the thinly disguised euphoria surrounding the November double header with Latvia and Poland which was fuelled by the optimism surrounding the new managerial ticket.

By contrast, the Serbia exercise drew attention to the strengths or weaknesses of the players at O'Neill's disposal. In some cases, it confirmed what we knew already.

If everything was rosy in the garden, there wouldn't have been a need for change in the first place and, as far as O'Neill was concerned, the value of the loss was the manner in which it exposed deficiencies. The problem with honeymoon periods is that they can sometimes breed delusion. "Of course I'd like to win the games but I think that the things we're trying to achieve, sometimes you might get carried away," reasoned O'Neill. "If we'd gone and won then of course you can get a lot of confidence from winning the matches and winning is very important.

"But sometimes you might get carried away in terms of a result. It might have hidden a couple of things that we know can be exposed by teams. So I haven't a real major problem with that."

On the face of it, there were reasons to be optimistic. The Republic burst from the blocks with purpose and managed to compete in the possession stakes even though Serbia eventually came out on top on the stats due to their eventual dominance.

The addition of Wes Hoolahan provided support for Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy and offered variation from the temptation to punt in the direction of Shane Long, even though that route was useful in the creation of the opening goal. In short, there was positivity, following on from O'Neill's words in the match programme which spoke of shedding the fear factor at the Aviva Stadium.

"I want them going into the games feeling that they can win the matches, not to be frightened of the opposition," he said. "If you go negatively into a game, there's a fair chance you will get turned over."

In an open affair, the Republic showed ambition. But they lost their way around half-time and O'Neill will have to examine the reasons. His initial instinct was that tiredness was a factor, with Aiden McGeady struggling which weakened the overall unit and left the rearguard exposed.

Hoolahan, the most effective Irish player on the park, was also withdrawn on the basis of fatigue arising from his lack of club activity. Chelsea's Nemanja Matic, operating as a defensive midfielder, stepped his performance level up in the period following the interval where the Serbians struck twice. This increased the pressure on Whelan and McCarthy.

The main area of experimentation was the back four, with O'Neill contesting a question which inferred that the pairing of Richard Keogh and Marc Wilson were nervous.

"I couldn't see that," he argued. "I think you could have a point from the second half, particularly at the start of the second half, but I thought in normal play in the first half we coped reasonably well.

"I didn't think that things were too badly wrong with us. These two lads, the centre halves, wouldn't have played together before so it takes a wee bit of getting used to."

It is dangerous to labour too much on the details of friendly encounters crammed into a hectic club schedule. Seamus Coleman, the Republic's best player in the Premier League this year, was out of sorts.

O'Neill also had to make substitutions with a view to minding the overworked.

The side's tame response to falling behind was a concern but in a competitive game, McCarthy wouldn't have been withdrawn from the field at that juncture. James McClean was the only attack orientated starter to stay on the pitch for the duration when in a qualifier, he could have taken first spot in the queue given the variety of wingers in the squad.

O'Neill, who rarely delivers short answers, broke from the mould when pressed with a specific question about where Robbie Keane fits into a side if Shane Long is also to be included and by extension if he faces a decision between them come the autumn. "I think there is a lot of time between now and then," was the brief response.

It is a dilemma. Keane would probably have taken the chances that Hoolahan laid on a plate, but it would be a gamble to enter three tough away matches without a forward threat like Long. The big decision could well come down to a straight choice between Keane and Hoolahan.

The summer gathering, which may extend to four friendlies – Turkey in Dublin, Italy in London and two US dates – will present further scope for exploring the range of options.

"The matches that we've already organised are very decent games for a start," he said. "And I would rather, genuinely, focus on what we did pretty well on Wednesday.

"I thought we did an awful lot of things really well," added O'Neill.

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