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O'Neill is giving McCarthy every chance to win his fitness battle

 

By Damian Spellman

Martin O'Neill is refusing to rule James McCarthy out of the Republic of Ireland's crunch World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and Wales - at the player's insistence.

The 26-year-old has not managed a single minute of competitive football for Everton this season as he attempts to shake off a persistent knee injury, and he has been warned by manager Ronald Koeman to put club before country after being called up by the Republic.

Koeman and O'Neill have been engaged in something of a feud since McCarthy aggravated a hamstring injury on international duty in March having earlier arrived with a groin problem.

However, the player trained with the rest of the Republic squad in Dublin yesterday afternoon and while O'Neill admits he will be cautious, he has not given up hope of having the midfielder available for Moldova's visit to the Aviva Stadium on Friday and the trip to Cardiff which follows it.

Asked if he was ruling McCarthy out, the manager said: "I don't think so, no - and he doesn't want to be ruled out at the moment.

"We'll have to look at that very, very carefully and see how he is. He has trained now for a number of days and he has joined in with the first team at Everton as well, so we'll see how he is."

The Republic's need to have one of their better players available as the campaign reaches its climax is all the more pressing with Jonathan Walters out with a knee problem and Robbie Brady and James McClean both suspended for the first leg of the double-header.

In addition, striker Kevin Doyle last week announced his retirement on medical advice, keeper Keiren Westwood has withdrawn from the squad with a rib injury and Harry Arter, Shane Long, David McGoldrick, Jonathan Hayes and Eunan O'Kane all sat out training yesterday.

The walking wounded are all expected to rejoin their team-mates today with newcomers Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan and Aiden O'Brien in particular looking to force their way into O'Neill's thinking.

The Republic have slipped to third place in Group D, a point adrift of second-placed Wales and know there is no margin for error.

O'Neill said: "It's a thing to look forward to. This is what you play for. We have two games, we have to win both matches. I can't concern myself about Wales. We have to put all our energy into the first match."

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