Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill keeping a cool head as Republic of Ireland target famous triumph

By Daniel McDonnell

November 14, 2017 could be more than just another day. It has the potential to be momentous in the context of the Republic's football history.

The Republic of Ireland have never completed the business of qualifying for a World Cup in Dublin before. The decisive strike en route to Italia '90 was delivered in Malta. USA '94 was booked by Alan McLoughlin in Belfast. The final hur­dle to Japan and Korea was the second leg of a play-off in Tehran.

In those instances, the heavy lifting may well have taken place on Irish soil. But the sweet sounding final whistle, the confirmation that the following summer would be spent at the greatest tournament of all, has always taken place on foreign soil.

The final act of all four World Cup play-off defeats - Paris 1965, Liverpool 1995, Brussels 1997 and Paris 2009 - unfolded overseas too.

The challenge for Martin O'Neill's men tonight is to make home advantage count for something. They did just that against Bosnia two years ago when a ticket to the Euros was ordered.

Yet there are players that should feature tonight, such as Shane Duffy, Harry Arter and Cyrus Christie, who were spectators rather than contributors.

"I think they want to create their own history," stressed a relaxed O'Neill. "And it would be lovely if we can. But we are a long way away from that."

The Ulsterman later dealt with a query about the Republic's fighting spirit by pointing out that, "It's something innate in the country," before adding that "Some of the people facing me would suggest that is not the case".

That was a joke, he clarified, yet it could be interpreted as a reference to the despondency that existed after an underwhelming September.

David Meyler, who was sitting to his right, subsequently said that he felt the doom and gloom was created by the press.

It went beyond that but, fuelled by the desire to silence doubters, this Irish dressing room have emerged from the big Aviva Stadium defeat to Serbia to set up anoth­er night in Ballsbridge that will really define this World Cup campaign.

O'Neill cast his mind back to the opening match in Belgrade 15 months ago. "It has been a long and gruelling cam­paign," he asserted.

Denmark's reaction to Saturday's scoreless fare in Copenhagen suggested that Age Hareide's side felt the first 90 minutes of this tie were long and gruelling.

O'Neill says the Republic need to be more expansive on their own patch. But his strategy for freshening things up will have to keep the possibility of another stalemate and extra-time in mind.

Meyler's presence at the press conference suggests he will get the armband back, and his return would allow Hen­drick or Robbie Brady to switch right in place of Callum O'Dowda.

However, that depends on the physical toll that the first en­counter has taken on Arter and Hendrick. Daryl Murphy put himself about too, but Shane Long could be a better option.

Wes Hoolahan has been called upon for significant games at the Aviva but it's entirely possible that he will be kept in reserve in case the Republic require the veteran playmaker's services to unlock the door in the dying stages of the tie.

The manager is preparing for the eventuality where the Republic require a pair of goals, yet it's worth noting the theme that runs through the keynote victories of the Ulsterman's tenure; Germany (1-0), Bosnia (2-0), Italy (1-0), Austria (1-0) and Wales (1-0).

The absence of a concession is the key. The Republic have won just two meaningful games under O'Neill where the opposition have struck the target - Georgia and Moldova were the opposition.

The Republic scored first in both of those games too, so when they conceded they only required another goal to regain the initiative.

Conceding first tonight would be a disaster. The settled back four behind Darren Randolph need to maintain the level of recent displays, with the Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark partnership showing promising signs that it can be carried into the Euro 2020 mission whatever happens here.

But the Republic have a short-term focus now. "This boils down to one game," said O'Neill. "We have to find a way to win a match.

"And I think we have to score a couple of goals. I really think that is the case. I think holding Denmark out for two matches is going to be very difficult. We have to bear that in mind. Our mindset is we want to create chances and we better score two."

That task is harder without a recognised goalscorer. For all of Long's positive attributes, his last goal for club or country came in February.

The Republic were the lowest-scoring side (12) of the 18 countries that made up the first and second finishers across the nine qualifying groups. They also had the fewest number of shots on target (36) which actually hints they made the most of rare opportunities to make it this close.

"You have to treat the game on its own merits," said O'Neill. "You can't look at the past now and say, 'Well we didn't do this and we didn't do that.'

"Some of the games we might have scored more goals in but we're not prolific. I'm only here competitively for three years - four years altogether - but really top quality Republic of Ireland sides have not been able to score goals.

"You have Robbie Keane out on his own and the next person to him (in the goalscoring charts) is someone who might have forced a corner or something like that. Seriously.

"There have been great players who have played for the Republic of Ireland in their history and they have never been prolific.

"We have to find the net and we think we're capable of doing it.

"It won't be easy and it's a tough match for us. We find everything tough, it's the nature of us. We don't have all the skills that maybe other nations have.

"We have to find it in a different manner. So far the lads have come up big in matches and this is a massive game where we're hoping to do it again."

Strange things happen in play-offs. When the Republic have gone down, they have generally gone down in a blaze of glory. But another clean sheet can give this group the chance to write a new chapter.

Unbearable tension beckons.

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