Will Martin O’Neill Pick Hoolahan or Whelan To Start Against Denmark?

With David Meyler suspended, there are fascinating choices facing the Ireland manager, before tomorrow night’s World Cup clash with Denmark, in Copenhagen.

Last night was a bad one for footballers wearing green. Northern Ireland were robbed of a draw and put completely on the back foot by a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Switzerland, in Belfast.

The Swiss victory came as a result of a penalty that never was! Handball was given against Corry Evans, when in fact Sheridan Shaquiri’s shot crashed off his shoulder. Was it deliberate? Not in a million years. Was it handball? Only by the farthest stretch of the imagination…

Northern Ireland might, of course, come again. But the advantage of an away goal and a lead means that Switzerland are in the driving seat. Turning their lead over will be exceedingly difficult.

And so the focus falls on Ireland, who take on Denmark tomorrow night, in a play-off first leg, in Copenhagen. And the big question, which Martin O’Neill will only answer 30 minutes before the kick-off is: who is going to play in the centre of midfield?

In the absence of David Meyler, who is suspended, and James McCarthy – still injured – the field is less congested than it might have been. There are still, however, a number of potential variations.

Here is how we here at Hot Press think that Martin O’Neill will start:

Randolph; Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward; Brady, Arter, Hendrick, Whelan, McClean; Long.

There are many who will groan looking at that potential team-sheet. Whelan and Arter played in the centre of midfield against Georgia, and it was one of the worst performances in years from Ireland. That said, Arter idd very well against Wales, so he seems like a certain choice. One view is that it comes down, then, to an old conundrum: Whelan or Hoolahan?

Most amateur pundits, as well as nearly every professional Irish one, would go for Hoolahan. So indeed would we, on the basis that he is far more likely to knit things together effectively, and to enable Ireland to keep the ball. Plus, we always seem more likely to score when he is on the pitch. He is Ireland’s best footballer. Why not have him out there?

But there are other options.

O'Neill might want to start Daryl Murphy, who scored two vital goals against Moldova in October. With Murphy upfront, that would allow him to push Shane Long into a wider role and bring Robbie Brady into a more central position. We would reject that option on the basis that you then have two players – Brady and Long – playing in what are not their best positions. Alternatively, he could switch to a 4-4-2 formation, with Long trying to feed off Murphy’s headers. But we would then almost certainly be completely over-run in midfield.

The final variation is more interesting, but even less likely. Martin O’Neill likes Callum O’Dowda, currently starring for Bristol City, who can play wide on the left or in a more central position. He could be the one to be given the creative role in the centre three, playing between the striker and the defensive mid-fielders. Or he could be given a wide position, again allowing Robbie Brady take the role of auxiliary midfielder.

There are other options, like giving a start to Aiden McGeady. But that seems highly unlikely. And so we are back to imagining what Martin O’Neill is most likely to do.

Having looked at the options, we still think he will choose Whelan over Hoolahan and play Hendrick as the advanced central midfielder (which is where he plays for Burnley). That, it is fair to say, will more or less guarantee us a night of valiant defending.

Can we get a result?

It is possible. The Irish spirit is strong. The team have developed an impressive resilience. Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark and Ward are all in excellent form. The team desperately want to qualify. And they are defensively very good (most of the time). Denmark are an excellent side and will throw everything they have at us. But we are in with a shout.

It’d be a bigger one if Wes Hoolahan were on the pitch. But we’ll see. We will see...

 

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