The Republic of Ireland manager will have more confidence in the depth of his squad after a determined display against the Azzurri at Craven Cottage
By Ronan Murphy
The injury sustained by Riccardo Montolivo against the Republic of Ireland at Craven Cottage on Saturday leaves Italy boss Cesare Prandelli with plenty to ponder ahead of the World Cup, but his counterpart in the other dugout also has much to consider after his side held the Azzurri to a scoreless draw.
Martin O'Neill spent much of his pre-match preparation answering questions on the future of assistant manager Roy Keane, but can now look forward to a brighter future followng his side's competitive display away from the distraction of off-field events. Ahead of the Italy game, Ireland's performances had been lacklustre, but the showing at Craven Cottage means that the team itself is finally worth talking about, regardless of any possible staff changes.
After a nervy opening 15 minutes at the neutral venue, the Boys in Green settled into the game, and repeatedly tested the Italian rearguard with confident attacking play. In a dramatic change from the tenure of Giovanni Trapattoni, O'Neill encourages his full-backs to get forward and support the wingers, and this tactic is beginning to bear fruit as it successfully caused the Italians to retreat.
Prandelli's narrow gameplan allowed Aiden McGeady and Anthony Pilkington to flourish, with the latter offering enough to move above James McClean in the pecking order for a starting position in the qualification campaign for Euro 2016. O'Neill singled out the widemen after the game, reserving special praise for McGeady and McClean. "McGeady tonight was sensational," O'Neill told Premier Sports. "James McClean came on with 20 minutes to go and had a fantastic time."
POSITIVE PILKINGTON | The Norwich City winger put in a remarkable performance
The experimental midfield duo of David Meyler and Jeff Hendrick more than matched their Italian opponents, with both players putting in hard-working shifts and testing goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu.
O'Neill was buoyant at the end of the match, claiming that his side were "absolutely phenomenal" against the Italians. "We had many chances, could have scored a few goals. Honestly I thought we were magnificent," he beamed. However, the 62-year-old's infectious assessment of the game should be tempered, for, while the Irish performance was arguably one of the best in recent times, a lack of killer instinct was frustratingly evident, with Shane Long failing to add to his international goal tally once again.
Simon Cox offered a different dimension off the bench and played well during his cameo, while Jon Walters' showing last weekend against Turkey indicated that he could be a better option up front than the Hull City striker. However, neither player has the same predatory instinct that Robbie Keane has - leaving Ireland impotent in his absence.
Saturday's slick attacking performance showed that the Boys in Green are capable of creating multiple goalscoring chances. With a confident goalscorer up front, O'Neill's charges should be able to find the net more regularly.
The Italy performance provides a platform to build on, with the two friendlies in the United States the perfect opportunity to help shape the team ahead of the qualifiers - with or without Roy Keane.