Nine down, one to go: What we've learned as Cardiff awaits..
After a decent night at the Aviva, where we drew the curtains on our home fixtures in this qualifying campaign, this is what we learned, and what decisions need answering before Monday:
Meyler, the anchor
Things are going very well for David Meyler. Awaking yesterday morning, he could have been forgiven for assuming he’d be back on the bench, as history tells us with the Corkman, O’Neill views him as a trustworthy back up option to several roles within the side. Apparently, and thankfully, that is no longer. Another strong anchoring performance last night, following up on his man of the match performance in Dublin last month against the Serbians, it feels we’ve finally found the answer to our deep midfield problems. Meyler has what no other player in our ranks has in this position – a combination of mobility and positional intelligence. Unless Hendrick or Arter can learn that same nous, Meyler should now be one of the first names on an Irish teamsheet for some time to come. O’Neill’s late call to give him the captains armband proves he too may finally agree.
Hendrick, lost in France?
With his court case having passed, we need to quickly find ourselves a new excuse for the spiralling form of Jeff Hendrick. His performances this campaign would unquestionably top the disappointment charts were it not for Seamus’s leg-break. He looks lost, and shot for confidence – which for a player who his playing a central part in one of the Premier League’s form-sides, it’s hard to understand. His goal last week against Everton showed the deft touch, and cheek, that he showed in France, but once again, he returned to International duty unable to replicate. Whilst he worked - positionally - reasonably tight with Meyler, interchanging their positions well, he showed little else to prove that this partnership is one O’Neill needs to place all his bet on. One of the big calls for Monday - where, how, and if, he starts him.
Grow your hair back, Jeff?
The new Dani Alves? Not quite..
Cyrus Christie has finally had enough time in a green jersey for us to understand exactly what we can expect from him, and unfortunately, it’s not as much as many had hoped. Seamus Colemans injury was always going to be a huge blow, but it’s now even clearer what a loss he is. Whilst Christie has provided a similar attacking outlet up the right-hand touchline, his delivery and final ball has lacked the quality needed at this level - forgivable, if he was an astute defender, but attacking is clearly how he defines himself. It’s an easy thing to say, but one certainly feels with the amount of opportunities he has had in excellent positions, were he to have even half of the composure of his Donegal counterpart, we’d not be staring down the barrel of a must-win game in Cardiff on Monday.
If you didn’t already know, Wes is king
It’s almost unnecessary to make the point once again just how important Wes Hoolahan is to this side. Last night, another exceptional example of which. He was by far the best player on the pitch, and orchestrated everything from an Irish perspective. Astute enough to read the game, and adapt his play – often time well before O’Neill does himself. Having Wes in the hole behind two forward players, is the ultimate luxury, and now that Meyler has really proved his worth in the anchoring role, it makes that option a lot more possible beyond just the ‘minnows’. However, whilst we’ll repeat again that he “has to” play in Cardiff, 78 minutes last night suggests that O’Neill feels otherwise, and Brady’s reintroduction may see him drop to the bench. All perhaps suggesting that the manager will go for a more risk-averse approach on Monday, strangle the game, all with a view to being a goal-from-glory with 20 to go. Leaving Wes and his hokus-pokus to muster up the match winner. Again.
Form is everything
If there’s ever an example of how important form and confidence are for a striker, last night was it. Shane Long, now 24 games for club and country without a goal, would’ve had a hattrick not so long ago, but came away with nothing; while Murphy, converted two – must be said – half chances, on his way to the Man of the Match award. It’s hard to think that O’Neill could start Long up top over Murphy on Monday after this, meaning the Southampton-man’s best chance of getting a start could come down the right – most likely at the cost of Hoolahan. There’s no better time to end a goal-drought than in such a huge game, there’s also no tougher time to do so. A huge call for O’Neill, this.
Maybe O’Dowda is used to the Moldovans, having now played 40% of his international appearances against them, but his performance last night certainly suggests that this is a player for not only the future, but very possibly now. Left wing is one of our most vigorously contested positions, and he already looks to be our most composed option. He may not have the directness and intensity of McClean, or the skill of McGeady, but he’s got a temperament that makes you feel he thinks an awful lot more, on and off the ball, than the rest. Some great interchanges throughout, particularly with Hoolahan, impressed - as too did his partnership with Ward. He’s also a serious option from set pieces. O’Neill tried him out more centrally after the introduction of McGeady – a clear sign he is having a real look at him. Watch this space.
Ward: The new Kilbane
Kevin Kilbane will be remembered as a crowd favourite, mainly for his horse-like commitment, rather than his actual ability to deliver class. But he was also subject to much criticism throughout his career, and it was only really towards the latter end that fans fully understood what he was about. It seems like Stephen Ward is emulating that very same thing. 46 caps to his name, many of which were on the back of being touted as a ‘bit of a liability’, he has proved of late, both for club and country, that it’s never too late to finally click. He’s still not the complete defensive package, however, he’s most certainly become a reliable consistency in a role that the nation spent way too long waiting for Marc Wilson to grab. A genuine attacking option (lets not quite call it a ‘threat’), coupled with the maturity to know when to go, he’s now firmly our number one left back option. Covering the overlap of attacking wing-backs is where he can get caught – and that’s central to the Welsh play, as we know. A huge game awaits for him.
Only major downside to last night was the timing of our substitutes. Darly Murphy and Wes Hoolahan should have been off after the hour, iced up, and preparing for Cardiff. 78 minutes, for both, was unnecessary. And if the look on Murphy’s face when the stadium announcer credited him with the Man of the Match award said anything about how he felt on the inside, he was truly knackered. Not ideal preparation for two of not only our top form-players, but also our oldest. The longer they remained on – both tirelessly leading the high press – the more one started to feel O’Neill already knew his team for Monday, and that’s most certainly a concern.
Win or Bust
Overhearing some fans chat on the way out of the Aviva last night, they were debating the size of the challenge that lies ahead on Monday. One, arguing that winning in Cardiff, against a higher ranked team, in a must-win game for both, would be a decade-defining achievement. The other arguing beating the World Champions or Italy would still rank higher in our highlights-reel. I asked the question, what would you prefer to be seeking 3 points from on Monday? A home game against an already qualified German side, or an away fixture to a resurgent, Wales, also needing a victory?
Personally, I think I’d welcome Kroos and co. But it matters little. What lies ahead is Cardiff. And it's huge.
Bring us to Russia, boys.