Hoolahan shines for Ireland on night of few highs for O'Neill

The Boys in Green boss must build his team around the Norwich City midfielder if he wants his team to seriously rival Poland and Scotland for second place in Group D
By Ryan Kelly at the Aviva Stadium

The Republic of Ireland finalised preparations for their opening Euro 2016 qualifying game in Georgia with relatively tepid performance against Oman, but Martin O’Neill will have collected plenty of knowledge ahead of Sunday’s clash in Tblisi, if few positives from the display.

The return of Shay Given dominated headlines in the build-up to this fixture and the Aston Villa man started the game, making his long-awaited ‘second debut’. However, the veteran’s involvement will have given little indication as to whether or not he should reclaim the number one jersey from David Forde.

The Donegal native’s role was practically reduced to that of spectator, for, while Oman exhibited occasional bursts of attacking flair, very rarely did they actually threaten the goal with accurate shooting in the first 45 minutes.

It took Ireland until the 19th minute to find the breakthrough and it came through the head of Kevin Doyle. Robbie Brady’s nonchalant delivery from a corner found the head of the new Crystal Palace loan signing, who nodded past Ali Al Habsi without fuss.

"I just put it in there and he made he most of it so I’ll give the credit to Doyle for that one,” Brady told reporters afterwards. “It’s always good to get involved in the goals.

"They had two good banks and in the defence and midfield they blocked it up well. They were more defensively organised this time round and made it difficult for us.

"But we got through it twice and that’s all we can do, so I was happy enough with a 2-0 win."

                          HEAD IN FRONT | Doyle header set Ireland on their way against Oman

Indeed, if O’Neill’s Ireland wish to contest games and pick up points against opponents such as Poland and Scotland, not to mention Germany, they will have to utilise set-pieces to their advantage and Doyle and Alex Pearce's goal reaffirmed the effectiveness from dead-ball situations that was once a hallmark of Giovanni Trapattoni’s team.

Doyle acknowledged the importance of utilising set-pieces after the game, noting that goals would be "hard to come by" for the Boys in Green.

"It's international football and goals are hard to come by," said the on-loan Crystal Palace striker. "Set-pieces create the most goals in football. It's no different for us and we're reasonably good at it; I think we do very well from set-pieces."

O’Neill will, moreover, be buoyed by the contribution of Wes Hoolahan, who was at the centre of everything positive for Ireland for the guts of 60 minutes before being replaced by Robbie Keane; his outing will have strengthened the notion that this team should be built around him. Whether dropping deep to pick up the ball, or supplying a final ball, the Norwich City midfielder was remarkably poised in possession, carefully weaving play with precision and ease.

The introduction of Shane Long and Aiden McGeady injected pace into the Irish attack, and such an attribute will undoubtedly be an asset for the Boys in Green on the road to France. Long’s ability to draw fouls will help Ireland forge chances from set-pieces and those moments will be crucial in qualification. However, the pair still retain the proclivity to frustrate. In a snapshot juxtaposition, McGeady lazily let a ball roll under his foot moments after having a great shot cleared off the line.

Ultimately, O'Neill will have garnered just enough from this seemingly meaningless friendly to inform his team selection heading into Euro 2016 qualifying, but there is still very little to shout about and it looks like it will, as the 62-year-old admitted in his pre-match notes, be a difficult journey.