Waterford’s Daryl Murphy will remember last Friday’s home game against Moldova as the night he trebled his international tally, writes Liam Mackey
Sean Maguire and Callum O’Dowda will have reason to think back fondly on it too whereas, for Shane Long, it will have been a night to forget.
But, for the rest of us, that 2-0 stroll in the park, if it sticks in the mind at all, will be recalled as the calm before the storm.
Of tonight’s clash of Wales and Ireland in the Cardiff City Stadium there is one thing we can say with certainty: It’s going to be intense.
Scotland’s almost absurdly predictable act of self-destruction in Slovenia yesterday means both sides now know that a win will guarantee at least a place in the play-offs.
But with Serbia still needing one point from their final game to secure automatic qualification as group winners — and a few of us dreamers still holding out hope that Georgia might do unto them what Bulgaria did unto France in 1993 — an automatic place in the World Cup finals is also still on the agenda for both sides when the first whistle blows tonight.
So it could be winner takes something or even winner takes all. That certainly applies to Ireland — theoretically Wales could progress to a play-off place on the back of a draw — and Martin O’Neill is hoping to leverage that clarity to his team’s advantage, emphasising the single-mindedness of purpose which, individually and as a collective, his players will need to show tonight.
“We have to win the game and it’s as simple as that,” he said at this pre-match press conference.
“Sometimes when it is that clear it can obviously clear your mind as well. The most important thing is try and win our game.
“I think our approach will be quite similar to the one we had against Italy in Lille where we knew before the game that a win was the only thing that mattered for us. We played with a lot verve and determination and closed down Italy very quickly, and a lot of that will be necessary against Wales.
“We created some chances and finally took one with five minutes to go in an epic game. And it’s not that far back in the memory that the players shouldn’t consider it when they’re approaching this game. We know that at the end of 90 minutes we’ve got to find ourselves in front and I think we’re quite capable of doing that.”
But he did point up one big difference between tonight and that memorable evening in France: “Both sides have to win this game and so, at some stage or another, whether it be after 15, 20 or 25 minutes, they’ll have to go for it. And the game, I predict, will be wide open in the second half.”
Apart from confirming that James McClean and Robbie Brady would return to his starting line-up, O’Neill was his usual guarded self in relation to other changes he might be considering from the team which played Moldova.
Murphy, he noted, had put “in a big shift” on Friday and it might be a “tough ask” for him to do another 90 minutes after such a quick turnaround.
“But he’s raring to go,” he added.
Referring to those “over 30 years of age”, he suggested that he would also have to take into consideration the possibility that some players might be more effective being deployed off the bench — as, it might be remembered, Wes Hoolahan was against the Italians.
But one dearly hopes that, on this occasion, the man who can make Ireland tick is given the chance to do so from the start.
Sitting beside the manager yesterday, Darren Randolph was his usual laconic self, at one point even appearing to suggest that, from his perspective as an experienced ‘keeper, this was just “another game of football.”
But, of course, it’s not, something he implicitly acknowledged later when he counselled: “It will definitely be a night for cool heads, and to play the game, not the occasion.”
With the Welsh seeking a first appearance at the World Cup finals in an astonishing 60 years and Martin O’Neill potentially one or three games away from being the first manager since Jack Charlton to lead Ireland to back to back Euros-World Cup qualification, there can be no getting away from the fact that this clash of the Celts is both a game and an occasion.
Hence, the very real substance to O’Neill’s impassioned defence of international football against its critics yesterday. “I’m surprised at the thought that international football doesn’t matter,” he said.
“It certainly does. The World Cup is still the biggest occasion in football. I know it doesn’t come around as often as the Champions League but it is still the biggest competition in the world. If you were to ask players from Brazil or Argentina or Germany what they would like to do (in the game), I think they would say the World Cup would be their top priority. So I’m surprised at the bit of negativity flying around about the World Cup. I don’t think it’s lost its lustre at all.”
Expect Ireland and Wales to give real meaning to those words tonight.
This story first appeared on IrishExaminer.com