Republic of Ireland vs Scotland: Martin O'Neill desperate for an upbeat end to week of bad news

The Euro 2016 qualifier takes place on Saturday

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The Independent Football

After a week that has seen the Republic of Ireland squad deal with tragedy, accident and furore, as well as the usual daily bouts of team speculation, John O’Shea yesterday got to the core of matters on the pitch when he was asked about Scotland and possible mind games from Gordon Strachan’s squad.

“Mind games?” O’Shea replied, “I don’t know about that. Look, we need to win the game. If we’re wanting to qualify for France, no matter who we’re playing, we need to win the game. They can say what they want.”

Mathematically a draw this evening at the Aviva Stadium, or even a home defeat, would not eliminate the Irish from Group D, but it would take a chunk out of any remaining belief that Martin O’Neill’s squad possesses the creative energy to catch Scotland, Poland or Germany.

As O’Shea said, this time must-win means must win.

Scotland, two points above the Irish, can hardly afford to be casual about their status in Group D but their 1-0 victory over the Republic in Glasgow in November has granted them a less anxious week thinking about today. “I don’t think life can get much better,” a relaxed Strachan said this week at the squad’s picturesque base outside Glasgow.

That game at Celtic Park, settled by Shaun Maloney’s 75th-minute strike, was a raucous affair and Strachan expects the same in Dublin. “The crowd decided that night: ‘this is the game we want, we’ll make sure we get it,’” Strachan said. “Crosses, headers, shots, blocks – it  was entertainment. Dublin will be the same, absolutely. The crowd won’t let it be anything else.”

Scotland’s kilted, highly visible and audible fans have travelled in numbers across the Irish Sea, with or without tickets. The buoyant mood has seen Strachan compared to Nicola Sturgeon this week by Scottish Football Association chief executive Stewart Regan. At board level there has also been an extension of the ongoing spat over ticket allocations between the SFA and their Irish counterparts.

Which team this mix suits most remains to be seen, but it won’t put off the Irish. Arguably their best 45 minutes under O’Neill came in the second half of the last qualifier against Poland, when Irish urgency combined with Polish conservatism to turn  a 1-0 deficit into a last- minute equaliser.

Shane Long rose from the bench to score that goal – and rouse the stadium – and the feeling in Ireland has been that Long is best introduced in such circumstances.

However, given the terrible family news over the past 48 hours for Robbie Keane, there is an expectation that Long will start, possibly with Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan in the role of deft support.

Keane, who is not fully fit – he is nursing a groin strain – heard yesterday that a second cousin, Stephen Harris, died from the same toxic fumes which overcame his brother Alan in a drainage incident this week. Keane is understandably upset and O’Neill said he will let the 34-year- old decide whether to take any part or not. “Obviously very bad news this morning,” O’Neill said of Keane. “He’s not feeling great and I must admit I feel for the family. He’s quite down at the moment.”

Less bleak, though troubling for O’Neill, is that Aiden McGeady sat out training with a sore hamstring. The Scotland-born winger is a key player for O’Neill, the two having been together at Celtic.

O’Neill would miss McGeady for what the  63-year-old former Northern Ireland captain accepts is the biggest moment so far in his 20 months in Dublin. He offered a gentle reminder yesterday that he has played in a World Cup quarter-final, won the European Cup with Nottingham Forest and experienced countless huge fixtures in Glasgow and abroad with Celtic.

“Naturally it’s very important for the nation, the players, for us – us being myself and backroom staff,” he said. “We’d love to do well in it. In terms of experience of international football, I might not have a great deal of it, but I’ve been managing for quite a considerable time. It doesn’t take too long before a high-pressure game comes around.”