Belfast Telegraph

Republic of Ireland are letting the good times roll, says Ward

By Damian Spellman

Stephen Ward has challenged the Republic of Ireland to pile pressure on Wales when the sides meet tomorrow night with three precious World Cup qualifying points at stake.

A depleted Republic host the Euro 2016 semi-finalists in Dublin sitting pretty at the top of Group D with 10 points from their opening four games - four more than the visitors from the same number of matches.

Ward is well aware of the threat posed by superstar Gareth Bale and company after their heroics in France, but the Republic too returned from last summer's tournament with their heads held high and the confidence they gained remains intact.

Burnley full-back Ward said: "From our point of view, we have taken a lot of confidence. Especially the younger lads and even the experienced lads have grown as players and that has shown in how we have started this campaign.

"Wales obviously finished on a high having got to the semi-finals and sometimes it can be difficult to keep those standards so high because that was an unbelievable achievement from them.

"We can only concentrate on ourselves and how we feel after the Euros. We feel we can go into any game now with the confidence to win."

A home win over Georgia and victories in Moldova and Austria following a draw in Serbia have left the Republic in the driving seat with four of their remaining six games due to take place in Dublin, where they have been strong in recent seasons.

Injuries to Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Harry Arter, Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy, coupled with a lingering concern over James McCarthy and Robbie Brady's absence through suspension, have disrupted Martin O'Neill's plans, although there is no sense of defeatism within the camp.

In the circumstances, a fourth win of the campaign could prove priceless, although Ward is not convinced even that would signal an end to Welsh hopes.

He said: "Things can change very quickly in these groups. I think most importantly, we need to approach the game and try to get the three points because it would be massive for us. It would be a nice cushion to have over a good side like them at the halfway point in the group.

"But I don't think that we really concentrate on other teams. We know the rewards if we can win the game and if we do get the three points - which we're going out there to do - we'll put ourselves in a really strong position for the second half of the group.

"I think they (Wales) will probably be disappointed with a couple of the points that they've dropped, but we've got to concentrate on ourselves."

That may be easier said than done with Real Madrid star Bale hoping to take advantage of O'Neill's selection problems, and Ward is under no illusions as to the task ahead of the Irish defence.

Asked if Bale is another step up from what he is used to in the Premier League, he said: "He is probably a step up from everything. He is at one of the biggest clubs in the world and is playing well. As a team, we are going to try and nullify him, but it's not going to be easy.

"It looks as though he has a free role for Wales and they'll want to get him on the ball as much as possible.

"We'll have to try to stop the service in to him and when he does get it, get as close as we can because you cannot afford to give a player of that ability too much space and too much time as you know he will hurt you.

"But he is certainly not the only Wales player that can hurt us, so we will have to be on our game all around the pitch."

Meanwhile, McCarthy has given Martin O'Neill fresh hope after taking part in training two days before the World Cup qualifier showdown with Wales.

The 26-year-old Everton midfielder warmed up with his team-mates in front of the cameras at Abbotstown yesterday morning for the first time since meeting up with the squad and was able to continue for the closed part of the session.

McCarthy reported for duty having not played for his club since March 5 because of a hamstring problem and the chances of him being fit enough to be named in the starting line-up for tomorrow night's game at the Aviva Stadium must remain remote. However, the fact that he has a chance of being involved will come as a welcome boost to Ulsterman O'Neill, who has already lost Duffy, Clark, Arter, Hoolahan and Murphy to injury and Brady to suspension.

Toffees boss Ronald Koeman is certain to keep a close eye on his player having had a series of run-ins with the Republic of Ireland set-up in recent months over McCarthy's use after previous fitness problems.

Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and Jonathan Hayes, who all sat out on Tuesday, were also able to take part in the full session.

Midfielder James McClean was back in the camp after being given leave to travel to Northern Ireland to pass on his condolences in person to the family of close friend and Derry City captain Ryan McBride ahead of his funeral this morning.

Belfast Telegraph


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