O’Neill hoping for a grandstand finish

A defiant Martin O’Neill has warned people not to write off the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualification hopes as they target a crucial victory over Serbia this evening.

Ireland returned from Georgia during the early hours of Sunday morning facing strong criticism of their display in a 1-1 draw in Tbilisi, with O’Neill himself admitting their first-half performance was as poor a 45 minutes as they have produced during the campaign to date.

Tonight’s clash with Serbia, who lead Group D by two points thanks to their 3-0 win over Moldova on the same night, has looked likely to be pivotal for some time, but with Wales now breathing down Ireland’s neck it has assumed even greater importance.

But O’Neill remains unbowed as he attempts to guide a team seeded fourth in the group when the draw was made to a top-two finish.

He said: “We’re in a tough group and we were fourth seeds, so there was Wales, Austria and Serbia in front of us. What we’re going to try and do is remember that it’s been difficult from the start. That’s number one.

“If we can’t win the group, then we’re going to try to get into the play-offs. That will mean we’ve finished in front of teams who were rated ahead of us.

“You have ask why they’re rated in front of us in the last couple of years. Maybe their records are better, maybe their coefficients are better over a certain period of time, I don’t know. Wales’ efforts at the Euros were very commendable – in fact, they were excellent.

“We’re in there fighting, that’s what we’re doing. We are unbeaten in the group at this moment. It’s hard to believe, but we’re unbeaten in the group.

“We’re going to try and do two things – win the game, and if we can’t do that, then we’ll try to get something out of it. But first and foremost, we’re going to try and win the match.

“If we win, then we set ourselves up for a grandstand finish.”

Ireland have produced big performances when they have needed them during O’Neill’s near four-year reign, none more so than the night they beat world champions Germany 1-0 in Dublin to help secure a Euro 2016 play-off place in which they hit the heights once again to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 at the Aviva Stadium.

Shane Duffy heads the ball towards goal to put Ireland ahead.

The manager will have no qualms about calling upon that spirit once again, knowing that his team is often at its best when up against it.

He said: “That’s exactly what we can do, think of the nights we’ve had here at the Aviva, splendid evenings.

“You mentioned Germany, the world champions – we beat them; the play-off game against Bosnia was fantastic.

“The fightbacks in some of the other matches that we’ve had and the grandstand finishes, all of those things should be uppermost in our minds.”

That was a theme taken up by striker Jonathan Walters, whose double against Bosnia booked Ireland’s trip to France.

He said: “We have sat here after the last couple of games and we’ve said it’s never going to be plain sailing in the group.

“We’re not one of the top teams in Europe [like] Spain, Italy, Germany, France, we’re not going to run away with the group. But we’re always going to be competitive and be in there.

“It was a disappointing result [in Georgia], but there was always going to be the same mentality to go into the Serbia game to get the three points and to win the game.

“We can draw on past results we’ve had at the Aviva and hopefully give it full throttle and go for it.”

However, O’Neill has had to admit defeat in his efforts to have key midfielder Jeff Hendrick available after he was ruled out having undergone a scan on a lingering thigh injury.

He also has concerns around two of his more creative players, Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady, who have groin and hamstring injuries respectively.

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