Martin O'Neill wary of Republic of Ireland being left behind in World Cup race
Martin O'Neill has warned the Republic of Ireland they cannot afford to be left trailing in the race for World Cup qualification if they are to stand a chance of making it to Russia.
The Republic launch their campaign in Serbia on Monday with manager O'Neill believing Group D could be the most keenly contested of the European qualifying round with the pair battling it out against Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova for one automatic berth.
Ireland, Wales and Austria all made it through to the Euro 2016 finals and the 64-year-old is predicting it will go down to the wire with the winner collecting fewer points than their counterparts in other groups.
Asked if his side had to win the group to qualify, O'Neill said: "There's only one team certain of qualification, so your mindset should be set to that, as is Serbia's, as is Wales', as is Austria's, every single side. If you were to go to Georgia tonight, you'd think these games are difficult.
"But we can win our home matches and we can grab some points away from home. Everybody will be going in with that mindset.
"Three of our first four games are away from home. We need to stay in the competition before we actually even get into it, and these games are tough.
"We are away to Serbia, home to Georgia, away to Moldova and away to Austria before Christmas. Those are tough matches, really tough games.
"I think this will be so tight. Teams will take points from each other. We could end up with the lowest number of points. But if you end up on top, where you want to be, then does that matter?
"But to speak about being top now at this minute would be ludicrous for me."
Like Chris Coleman's Wales, Ireland will set out full of confidence after a creditable showing at the Euros, where they reached the last 16 before being edged out by hosts France.
However, while O'Neill is well aware of the buzz which remains in the camp from the summer, history demonstrates that form is not always carried into the next campaign.
He said: "Hopefully, there should be a natural progression, but it doesn't always work like that.
"For instance, if you look at Holland. Holland ended up in the semi-final in the World Cup and you would think everything was absolutely terrific.
"But they couldn't get out of their group in the Euros - they couldn't get into the top three. This was only months afterwards, and they are a nation that's contested World Cup finals."
Serbia will be without suspended duo Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matic for the game at the Crvena Zvezda Stadium - known by the locals in Belgrade as the Marakana - but O'Neill is expecting a tough test.
He said: "Great players like that will probably be missed for a while, but I think Serbia have the talent to be able to make sure that the other players coming in are right up to the game."
O'Neill has big decisions of his own to make - defenders Seamus Coleman and John O'Shea both trained at the stadium on Sunday evening, but a question mark remains over the full-back in particular.
Sunderland's O'Shea could he handed a reunion with Serbia's Newcastle frontman Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored against the Black Cats in a 1-1 derby draw in March.
When that was mentioned to O'Neill by a Serbian journalist, he said with a smile: "I'm pleased you told me that, I wasn't aware of it. It means that John O'Shea will not now play. I'm joking."
O'Neill was less amused when asked once again about his new, but as yet unsigned, contract, but said: "I don't think there are any real particular issues and it's just a matter of getting around to it."