Fresh from a Nations League performance that earned them relegation to League C and a change of manager, the Republic of Ireland have started European Championship qualification in relatively good shape, picking up seven points from their first three games. Friday night saw them snatch a point in Copenhagen, continuing a recent run of away draws against a nation that thrashed Martin O’Neill’s side 5-1 in Dublin less than eighteen months ago. Tonight the Irish side, now under the management of Mick McCarthy, will seek to solidify their lead at the top of Group D with what is expected to be a routine win over minnows Gibraltar.
The men from the Rock have a job on their hands to do anything other than lose this game. Across qualifying campaigns for the World Cup and European Championships, their record reads: Played 22 matches, lost 22, five goals scored and 107 conceded. They do have the minor fillip of having faced the Irish back in March and held them to 0-0 at half-time. Ireland then scored within five minutes of the restart, but a 1-0 defeat represented a decent outing for a side that has only ever lost these games. Replicating the performance in Dublin will be another matter, of course, but it’s not like Ireland aren’t prone to flaky performances.
McCarthy era brings greater cohesion
After a spell with Martin O’Neill as manager which started promisingly – the Irish qualified for Euro 2016 and reached a play-off in World Cup qualifying – the rot set in fast, and was at its most pronounced in the aforementioned 5-1 defeat against the Danes. Fans of the national side still remember O’Neill’s decision to take off both holding midfielders at half-time and throw on wingers in their place, a move which turned a tentative but recoverable Irish performance into a flailing, shapeless mess. Under McCarthy the emphasis has been on getting the basics down and seeking to build on that – which has so far led to prosaic wins over Gibraltar and Georgia and a point in Denmark.
That businesslike approach means Ireland are unlikely to trip over themselves this evening – as far removed as this side is from previous Irish sides with names like Roy and Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and others among them, it should still be able to pick off a win here without undue hassle. It’s key for the hosts to get an early goal under their belt in order to relax and see out the win they need here, and Betway have odds of 10/11 that the first goal will come in the opening quarter of an hour. With McCarthy likely to field a slightly more attacking line-up than usual tonight, those are odds worth taking.
Irish landslide not a foregone conclusion
We’ve seen the statistics regarding Gibraltar’s qualification campaigns thus far – they have conceded goals at an average of nearly five a match, and even in the Nations League, where they were specifically paired with sides around the same level as them, they still lost 6-2 to Armenia and 4-0 to North Macedonia. If ever there was a time for the Irish to break their relationship with the binary system (they’ve had results of 1-0, 1-0 and 1-1 so far in this competition), surely tonight is the time.
It’s fair to expect that McCarthy’s men will have enough about them to improve upon the 1-0 they achieved on a windswept afternoon in Gibraltar three months ago. Signs of the cohesion that was entirely absent in the final days of the O’Neill era have been in evidence recently. However, it’s not immediately evident that Ireland have the firepower to match the 9-0 win Belgium had over this opponent, or the 7-0 that a better-equipped Boys in Green achieved the last time Gibraltar came to the Aviva Stadium.
There are four strikers in this Irish squad, and between them they have a total of no goals scored in 25 caps at international level. That includes David McGoldrick, the chosen starter in their last three games. A result of 3-0 would be utterly unsurprising, and it might well be worth betting with William Hill on the game having fewer than 3.5 goals. They’ve priced that at 13/8, and with Ireland’s mediocre attack coming up against a ten-man Gibraltar defence, it’s tempting.
Irish depth to deliver the result
When it comes down to it, Irish organisation and strength in depth is almost certain to win out here over Gibraltar, who merely have organisation. They’re likely to set out to frustrate their opposition, and have a measure of success in doing so – and it’s entirely conceivable that the contingent of centre-forwards in this Ireland squad will continue their non-scoring streak. However, as the visitors fall further and further back to deal with the greater firepower of the Irish side, more players on the home side will get forward, and the Irish midfield isn’t half bad at picking up goals.
James McClean, whose ten goals at this level make him the most prolific player Ireland can call upon, is priced at 7/2 to get the opening goal. Given that we can expect a congested penalty area whenever Ireland attack, a player who likes to cut in from the wing and try his luck may well be the one to break the dam, possibly with the aid of a deflection. Backing McClean at Paddy Power is a smart move, and surprisingly long-priced by bookmakers who seem to expect those non-scoring strikers to suddenly find their shooting boots.
Bets of the DayGoal in the first 15 minutes (Betway, 10/11); McClean to score first (Paddy Power, 7/2); Fewer than 3.5 goals (William Hill, 13/8)