The March To France Begins

The Republic of Ireland’s trip to the 2016 European Championships is now starting to gain momentum as the finals get a lot closer. Over the past couple of days Martin O’Neill and his squad of players have been together in their Dublin base and have played a couple of games against Switzerland and Slovakia. It was a chance for O’Neill to have a good look at his squad and see who the form players are. After the couple of days together the manager will have very little time to get all his plans set in stone as the tournament is now less than eighty days away. It was also a chance for the fringe players to impress and put in a good case to be included in the squad that boards the plane to the championships. So over one hundred and eighty minutes who impressed and who has blown their chance of a European Championship appearance. Well read on below and let me try to unravel the talking points of the two games.

The build up started on the 25th of March when Switzerland game to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The Swiss who are ranked 12th in the world was a perfect game to start the build up to France. In games like this in a build up to a major tournament, that the result can sometimes become secondary. Although it is always great as a team to keep the winning momentum, managers can learn more sometimes in a defeat. Martin O’Neill need not have worried about a defeat after Ciaran Clarke’s header from a corner settled the result. In fact what was more important to the manager and his coaching staff was how the team performed in a very competitive game. There are games when you have to dig in and work hard for a victory, this was one of those games. The Switzerland team played with a high tempo and caused the Irish no end of trouble, but manager O’Neill would have been delighted with the way his team went about their job to keep a clean sheet. On the night a rock in the Irish defence was Blackburn Rovers defender Shane Duffy who cleared everything thrown at him. The team as a whole worked extremely hard and it is a performances like this that will be needed in France. Switzerland were pushed on by their captain and star player Behrami but nothing was going to break down a solid Irish defence. The only thing that put a damper on the whole night was a very serious injury to striker Kevin Doyle, who had to have surgery on a horrible gash on his leg. It was bitter blow for the very likeable Doyle as this was seen as his chance to show O’Neill that he could still do a job at international level. The statistics in years to come will show that Ireland won by a goal to nil, but what was more important, which stats will never show, was how the team gelled and put in a great shift.

Following on from Friday night was a game against Slovakia which gave the manager a chance to have another look at how his squad would perform. The Irish team had come in for a lot of bad press after the Switzerland game, even though they won. The argument was that the Irish never took the game to the Swiss, but in my opinion this was not an option as the Swiss passed the ball at a very high tempo on the night. So what did O’Neill change for this game, well he played Wes Hoolahan from the start and this made his side look so much better going forward. The Irish manager went into the game without Walters, Robbie Keane, Darryl Murphy and the unfortunate Doyle who had picked up his injury in the Swiss game. Hoolahan, Jame McClean and Shane Long played as a diamond shape up front and the Irish looked magical going forward. At the back Paul McShane came in for a lot of stick as he was at fault for the Slovaks first goal as he totally messed up on a header which let the opposition in for the goal. As we all know, mistakes like that at International can be catastrophic against a team who play so fast on the break. Paul’s positioning for the Slovak second goal had to be questioned as well but it was unfortunate that the ball deflected off him and flew in. It is always the same when your luck is down, these things can happen. The Irish goals came from two penalties, the first penalty in my opinion was a bad call by the Norwegian referee. Both penalties were put well by Shane Long and James McClean. A two all draw was a result both sides seemed to settle for at half time as the second half was a pretty poor forty five minutes. One awful piece of news to come out of the game was a very bad injury to goalkeeper Rob Elliot which has now put him out for the rest of the season. It has taken a long time for Rob to get a chance at international football and the injury was a huge disappointment for the lad.

So on reflection, what has been learned from the past two games as Ireland edge closer to the 2016 European Championships Finals? The manager and his coaching staff must surely be happy with the way things are shaping up in terms of team spirit and commitment. The only real downer on the whole get together was the injuries to Doyle and Elliot and news of an injury also to Shane Long. It is not long to go now and O’Neill can only hope that apart from long term injured players, everyone else can be fit and raring to go for the finals. The squad will reassemble in May and they face Holland and Belarus before departing to France, these games will give Martin another chance to fine tune things

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