By Phil Rice
Two wins away to Georgia on Saturday and at home to Serbia next Tuesday, would go a long way to gaining World Cup qualification for the Republic of Ireland.
With only two further matches against Moldova at home and a tricky away tie against Wales, to follow, the Republic face these two forthcoming games knowing that six points would almost guarantee them of a play-off place at worst.
That is not to say that either of these games will be straight forward. Despite never having lost to Georgia in eight matches, Martin O’Neill (pictured) knows that they are a tough nut to crack, especially at their home in Tbilisi.
A hard earned 1-0 victory against the Georgians in Dublin last October underlined how difficult they can be to break down.
O’Neill’s team currently lie in second place on goal difference to Serbia, having yet to lose a game, and they are aware that the foundation for qualification has been laid.
At the start of the campaign Ireland were ranked fourth in their group, so they have played well above their ranking so far. O’Neill is determined to qualify by right and not rely on qualifying through the lottery of a two match play-off.
Nine points from their final four matches would virtually guarantee top place. A win in Georgia would be important but a home win next Tuesday against Serbia is crucial, as the Serbians are their closest rivals for automatic qualification.
Serbia also have a difficult away tie in Austria to come, so Ireland could potentially be in a very strong position come Tuesday night, if these two results go their way.
Ireland were denied a home win against Austria in their last match when a last minute Shane Duffy goal was disallowed when it appeared that the Irishman made contact with the ball before colliding with the Austrian defender on the goal line.
That still rankles with some of the players, and Robbie Brady recently called the referee’s decision “a disgrace.”
But they must put that disappointment behind them and realise that qualification is still very much within their grasp.
Jonathan Walters has been a key man in the qualifiers to date but there is a serious doubt about his fitness for the Georgia match.
His Burnley manager Sean Dyche gave an update after the weekend, saying “Jon injured his ankle ligaments, but it isn’t as serious as it could have been, which is good news.
He still won’t be back immediately, but there was good news from the scan and we are hopeful it was a pretty straight forward situation.”
He went on to say, “Jeff Hendrick is still struggling with the thigh strain that kept him out of last weekend’s Tottenham game but he has not quite been ruled out of playing this week.”
Shane Long is likely to be Walters’ replacement if he can’t make it. Aiden McGeady’s fine form for his new club Sunderland won’t have gone unnoticed by the Irish manager and he is likely to contest a midfield place with Harry Arter, joining Jeff Hendrick (if fit) Robbie Brady and James McClean in a strong looking midfield.
Brady has been playing mostly at left back for Burnley but O’Neill is likely to play him further forward.
His accuracy from dead ball situations is likely to be one of Ireland’s greatest threats. Wes Hoolahan has been used sparingly by O’Neill, usually as a substitute, but he may be tempted to start the Norwich man just off either Walters or Long up front.
Cyrus Christie is the obvious choice as replacement for the long term injured Seamus Coleman at right back. Central defence will be contested by John O’Shea, Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh.
Georgia are defensively strong and Ireland will need to take advantage of the rare opportunities they are likely to get.
O’Neill has built a settled side that should be capable of a least four points from the two games.