For a man whose teams is charged with winning two games in three days just to have a chance of remaining in contention for next summer’s World Cup, Martin O’Neill appeared totally at ease as he faced the gathered press at Abbotstown yesterday afternoon.
Questions were answered without any element of suspicion, jokes were exchanged – better ones than his oft-surreal comedy capers, and there was even pleasantries exchanged about that Merseyside club with the Dutch ruler, which has provided an entertaining, if exhausting, sideshow throughout the O’Neill tenure.
In fact, the Ireland manager appeared so at ease as he sat perched and alert at the top table, that he even managed to let the cat out of the bag about his "willingness" to continue in the job until Euro 2020 – later confirming that he had agreed a new two-year deal with the FAI.
And while some might put that calmness and cordiality down to the fact that he is secure in his job, irrespective of what happens over the next few days, the manager’s mannerisms minded of a time in the not so distant past where a similar demeanour was portrayed, 24 hours out from another World Cup qualifier.
Back in Vienna last November, O’Neill spoke with real confidence and ambition, before watching his side go out and beat their hosts at the Ernst Happel Stadion – perhaps Ireland’s finest overall performance throughout the current regime.
And while O’Neill remained guarded about the manner of winning tonight’s encounter, while totally steering clear of any associated banter of what might occur in the Welsh capital on Monday, that same vibe bounced around the packed auditorium in the west Dublin campus.
With just two points earned from the nine on offer in Ireland’s three previous qualifiers, one might wonder why the manager appeared so relaxed and confident.
It is "must-win" territory now, conceded O’Neill, and while the task seems a lot more difficult than it did at the half-way point, when Ireland were top of the group, these are two winnable games, which could see Ireland through to the play-off stage.
Wales away, of course, will take a performance to match the aforementioned fixture in Austria.
But tonight’s encounter against Moldova should prove quite the amuse-bouche.
The manager has never appeared to offer too much emphasis on the manner of winning games, and even against Moldova tonight, O’Neill will be quite content to stumble over the line as long as three points are secured.
A concerning trait for the discerning Irish football fan who expect the team to evolve, leading to better aesthetics; surely not too much to ask from a squad that has played two full qualifying campaigns under the current management team.
Perhaps though, on this particular occasion, O’Neill may be excused should a sloppy victory ensue, as results certainly trump performances at the business end of the campaign.
But realistically, this Ireland team should waltz through tonight’s game, with the players playing, first and foremost, for the victory, but also for a chance to play in the Wales clash on Monday and ultimately in Russia next summer.
Ireland have had a habit of struggling to maintain momentum when they have taken the lead in games throughout this group, however, an early goal should certainly prove the perfect tonic and lead to a moral boosting and facile victory.
James McCarthy’s presence all week at training will have pleased the manager and the constant communication with Everton may finally put an end to the war of words.
However, the midfielder is nowhere near match fitness and cannot possibly be in line to complete 90 minutes tonight.
The manager has had to work without McCarthy for a large chunk of the campaign and should have enough options to avoid risking the Everton man in either game.
Of course, should Meyler or Whelan pick up a yellow card tonight, McCarthy might be considered to play some role in Cardiff on Monday.
That will surely be a last resort, however, and the midfielder is likely to return to his club in better shape than when he arrived, which should proved pleasing to club manager Ronald Koeman.
Suspensions and injuries will force the manager to make changes throughout his team as James McClean and Robbie Brady miss out as a result of the yellow card rule, while Jonathan Walters is not fit to be involved.
O’Neill also has to consider a whole host of players who are in danger of missing the Wales game with one yellow card to their name going into tonight’s encounter.
Three of the probable back four, Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy and Stephen Ward will need to be very careful with their aggression and timing to avoid a ban for Cardiff, while Aiden McGeady, David Meyler and Glenn Whelan are also on thin ice in that regard.
And then there are the senior squad members and others who have not being playing regularly at their club, who must be assessed as to whether they will be able to remain completely competitive for two internationals within three days.
The manager admitted that all of these scenarios have crossed his mind, but then reminded himself that the next game is the most important.
O’Neill will naturally have an ideal XI in mind for Wales but conceded that he may just have to wait and see what players are available following tonight’s encounter.
Whatever team the manager decides on should still be more than capable of winning tonight, and despite all the different scenarios potentially affecting the Wales game, O’Neill will still opt for a strong, experienced formation.
The back five picks itself these days with Darren Randolph between the sticks behind a back four of Christie, Duffy, Clark and Stephen Ward.
Meyler’s performance against Wales should see the manager keep faith with the ever-reliable Hull City midfielder, sitting in front of the back four.
But after that, O’Neill could really offer up any amount of permutations with the attacking five.
A trio of Aiden McGeady, Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan playing across the midfield in front of Meyler with Shane Long and Daryl Murphy up front would be a real signal of intent from the manager in terms of playing on the front foot.
However, O’Neill may just opt for one more player with defensive DNA, which could see Harry Arter or Conor Hourihane start the game.
The manager will be hoping that he is not going to have to summon someone from the bench to influence proceedings, however, tonight’s substitutes will probably consist of fringe players with the possibility of competitive debuts for one or two players.
Daryl Horgan, Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire will be all chomping at the bit to experience some international action, while those just ahead in the pecking order, like Callum O’Dowda will also be out to impress ahead of the Wales match and a potential play-off.
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