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World Cup Qualifier Preview: Ireland v Wales

A team top of the group and in a great place to stay there, Ireland host Wales in Dublin on March 24th. The boys in green will expect nothing less than three points to follow up a crucial night in Vienna last November.

It hasn’t been as pretty as the table suggests, with Ireland leading on ten points ahead of Serbia by two as Wales sit another two below. An abject opening performance saw the ‘Boys in Green’ steal a point against an out of sorts Serbia in Belgrade. Georgia at home and Moldova away were supposed to be comfortable yet typically Martin O’Neill’s men made hard work of it. Wizardry from captain Coleman saved the day in Dublin while James McClean came of age in Chisinau.

It is that November night in Austria which is fresh in all of our minds. A performance in contrast to the other three, a victory much deserved. It was McClean again, influenced by the genius of Wes Hoolahan and the work rate of Cork man David Meyler.

It has been a completely different campaign for Wales. Fresh off a record-breaking European Championships in France where they reached the semi-final, ‘The Dragons’ were tipped by many to top group D. Chris Coleman’s side boast world class talent in the likes Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, yet find themselves with just six points after four games.

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(L-R) Glenn Whelan, John O’ Shea and Robbie Brady during training //FAIreland Twitter

A month prior to November 12th, where Ireland had its high point, Wales had its lowest, unable to beat the Georgia side who gave Martin O’Neill something to worry about just days before. More heartbreak followed in their last outing, conceding an 85th-minute equaliser at home to Serbia. The 3-1 victory over Belgium at Euro 2016 felt like a long time ago.

Although Ireland had a summer of sentiment, it was dwarfed in contrast to what the Welsh achieved. Nevertheless, a victory against Italy in Lille demonstrated the new capabilities of the Irish side. Beating higher ranked teams no longer seemed impossible. Shane Long’s iconic winner against Germany ended a fourteen-year drought since Jason McAteer did something of a similar nature at Lansdowne road against the Dutch. The triumphs in the summer and more recently against Austria are indicative of a belief in the Ireland camp. The fact Wales sit thirteen places higher in the FIFA rankings won’t daunt O’Neill’s men.

With new capabilities has come a new spine. Darren Randolph now marshals everything from the base, a man who has also forced his way into the number one spot at West Ham. Who plays in front of him isn’t a certainty. Whoever it is will have to combat Premier League talent in the likes of Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, and of course Gareth Bale.

Shane Long should lead the injury stricken line-up against Wales skipper Ashley Williams, who has been a rock at the back for Everton in recent months. Long’s pace will give him chances yet whether he takes them is another issue. However, O’Neill could opt for the direct option in Jon Walters who excellently brought the midfield into the game in Vienna.

Who starts in the centre of midfield will be a major cause for debate, with Harry Arter recently re-injuring himself and David Meyler proving his worth last time out. Wes Hoolahan won’t be around to fill the number ten role he has thrived in ever since his days at Tolka Park. O’Neill’s old guard of Glenn Whelan and the doubtful James McCarthy will feel they belong in the starting eleven.

Hendrick is expected to slot in midfield while his Burnley teammate Robbie Brady is absent due to suspension. Ireland’s number ten picked up a needless booking in Vienna for time wasting. Another Burnley man in Stephen Ward should play at left back.

A new-look centre-back pairing of John O’Shea and Richard Keogh should replace the injured Ciarán Clark and Shane Duffy. The duo did play a crucial part in Euro 2016 qualification and will look to justify their return to the team. Seamus Coleman is a guarantee at right back.

Wales’ best eleven may fully consist of Premier League talent but Ireland looks to have a greater squad depth. There should be Premier League talent on the bench for O’Neill as there was last time out with the bonus of flair players in the mould of Preston’s Daryl Horgan and Callum O’Dowda. Aiden McGeady could fill the Hoolahan shaped void as he continues his renaissance at Preston.

roy keane

Roy Keane: If you think our mindset is to get a draw then you are sadly mistaken. We are here to win //FAIreland Twitter

The culmination of the tie will see the group phase reach its halfway point and Wales boss Chris Coleman is still confident saying: “Ireland have set the tempo now, they’re playing on the front foot and deserve to be top.

“It’s a great win for them and they are there on merit. But I think there will be twists and turns in the next six games.

“We’ve got to play Ireland home and away and the good thing for us is we can affect our own destiny.

“There’s a lot of points to play for and we know it’s going to be a tough game in Dublin. But we probably couldn’t have picked a better game because it’s going to be a fantastic atmosphere.

“And we are well capable of going there and getting a result, we’ve proved that in the past.”

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill is satisfied with the campaign so far but is typically cautious looking ahead to the Walsh clash.

He said: “We’ve got 10 points from 12, which is great for us at this moment, maybe more than we could have bargained for. It’s a tough old group but we’re in there fighting.

“Naturally I’m very concerned about it [Wales match].  As it gets closer I get more concerned.  Way back when we beat Austria in Vienna I thought, ‘March, you know, it will never come’, but it’s coming around now very, very quick.

“My concern is trying to win the game. That’s sort of a major concern. To be perfectly honest, that’s my only concern. It’s called job-saving.”

If Ireland wins the tie it’ll keep them at least two points ahead of Serbia who occupies second place. Best case scenario for Ireland would see the gap increase to five points with five games to go. This game is a must-win for Wales who after three draws should play aggressive and attacking football. It’ll be O’Neill’s game plan to combat this as Ireland did so successfully against the likes of Bosnia and Germany en-route to Euro 2016.

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