The Republic of Ireland’s bid for Euro 2020 qualification will be tested by this month’s pivotal trips to Georgia and Switzerland.
The Georgians have become familiar foes in recent seasons and a trip to Tbilisi is rarely straightforward.
Here, the PA news agency takes a look at what may lie ahead for Mick McCarthy’s men.
The case for the defence
McCarthy has based his qualification bid on the firmest of foundations. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph has conceded only two goals in five games having received commendable protection from a back four comprising skipper Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and Enda Stevens. However, with Keogh injured and Stevens suspended, something will have to give in Tbilisi. Duffy travelled after shaking off a calf problem and either John Egan or Kevin Long is likely to get the nod alongside him in central defence, with Matt Doherty – who plays as a right wing-back at Wolves – the favourite to drop in on the left.
It is more than 21 years since then teenagers Robbie Keane and Damien Duff were handed senior Ireland debuts in a friendly against the Czech Republic, and the pair went on to win a total of 246 caps between them. McCarthy was the manager who gave them their chance during his first spell in charge. And he could hand another promising youngster an international bow in Georgia having drafted 19-year-old Brighton striker Aaron Connolly into the squad following his impressive displays for the under-21s and his Premier League double against Tottenham last Saturday.
Goals have been a problem for the Republic since Keane’s retirement and the current pool of forwards did not have an international strike between them when they met up last month. David McGoldrick ended his drought with a precious late equaliser against Switzerland, but has since been sidelined by a groin injury. Luton’s James Collins came off the bench to open his account in a friendly win over Bulgaria five days later and he, Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire, Callum Robinson and Connolly will battle it out for a starting berth.
Finishing line in sight
If Ireland’s fixture list was front-loaded with games from which they could amass a healthy return of points, the finish always looked far more taxing. However, 11 points from five games, including creditable draws with Denmark and Switzerland, has left them within striking distance of qualification. Victory in Georgia would set them up perfectly for Tuesday night’s difficult trip to Geneva, with the Danes due at the Aviva Stadium next month.
Trouble in Tbilisi
Few within the Ireland camp will need any reminder of the difficulty of winning at the Boris Paichadze Arena, with Denmark having emerged from their trip to Georgia last month with only a 0-0 draw. Ireland too could only manage a point on their last visit, a somewhat fortuitous 1-1 World Cup qualifier draw in September 2017, and they needed a late Aiden McGeady winner to claim all three points there in a Euro 2016 qualifier three years earlier.
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