Ireland will face a stern test in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first-leg of the Euro 2016 playoff.
Martin O’Neill’s tactical planning will be on overdrive due to crucial injuries to crucial members of the squad. How can the boys in green keep Bosnia at bay to give themselves a chance in the capital on Monday night?
Ireland have been at this make or break stage before and undoubtedly have the experience, but are now without key members such as Shane Long, Jonathan Walters and John O’Shea.
They face a Bosnia team in a fine run of form. They have won five of their last six competitive games. The only previous meeting between the two sides saw Ireland come out victorious thanks to a goal from Southampton’s Shane Long in a friendly at the Aviva in 2012.
Ireland will have to worry about two particular players. Roma teammates Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko are going to be Bosnia’s danger duo. O’Neill will be well aware of Dzeko from the Premier League and the former Manchester City striker must be kept quiet if Ireland are to have any chance in Dublin.
Someone is going to have to fill the void left by John O’Shea at centre-half in order to stop Dzeko.
Irish managers in the past have stuck with the tried and tested when it came to the main stage. One could cut the shortlist to two players - Mark Wilson and Ciaran Clark.
Unfortunately, neither player goes into this game in brilliant form. Wilson has been experiencing less and less playing time as of late and Ciaran Clark is playing for the team with the most losses in the Premier League as they sit at the bottom of the table.
The only other options to fill in for injured and suspended O’Shea is Alex Pearce of Derby County (6 caps) and Paul McShane of Reading (31 caps), but with Pearce’s inexperience at international level and McShane’s long term omission, not many will be banking on either getting the nod alongside Richard Keogh.
Regarding the vacant striker position, we only have three options upfront if O’Neill doesn’t decide to play a false 9 - Robbie Keane, Daryl Murphy and Kevin Doyle.
None of these three make you feel very confident in terms of goal-scoring as we will see less of the ball than the Bosnians.
Keane may be our top all-time scorer as well as four goals this campaign, but all were against the minnows Gibraltar and he failed to make an impact against anyone else.
Daryl Murphy seems to be a one season wonder and unfortunately for us the Waterford man’s best season was last year. The final option is Kevin Doyle, who has been playing sub-standard quality football for the Colorado Rapids in the MLS.
Where can Ireland exploit the Bosnians? Bosnia’s manager Mehmed Bazdarevic is probably looking to stop our adventurous full backs from getting forward. Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady give us additional width and quality deliveries from the flanks.
Many believe James McCarthy had his best game in a green jersey against the Germans in that fateful night in Dublin a few weeks ago, but I believe this needs to be his finest hour and a half.
Glenn Whelan has also been playing superb stuff for his club Stoke, but if the Republic were to get a positive result away from home, these two need to break up more play and provide the shield that our John O’Shea-less defence needs in front of them.
Despite constant criticism of our lack of expressive football from pundits and fans alike and the injuries which seem to be increasing by the day, Ireland have an unpredictability about them in terms of their selection and their starting XI.
Nobody can be 100% sure what formation Ireland will reveal. Does O’Neill go with a 4-5-1 with three midfielders to protect the back four? Does he dare to come out with a 4-2-3-1 with Wes Hoolahan in the 10 role with Robbie Keane running the channels?
Maybe Stephen Ward will regain his place at left back, enabling Robbie Brady to push up on the wing?
One probably has a better chance at winning the lotto than knowing what team and plan the Irish managerial staff are going to implement and maybe, the coaches haven’t even decided themselves by now.
The 11,500 seater Stadion Bilino Polje in Zenica will have over 800 Paddys screaming their hearts out, praying for the boys to give it 100%. Expect another tight, long-ball flurried night tomorrow and let’s hope Ireland nick a crucial away goal.