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Groundhog Day all over again for impotent Ireland

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When the final whistle blew shortly before 7pm on Saturday evening at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, confirming a 1-1 draw between Republic of Ireland and Scotland in their Euro 2016 qualifier, the feeling was all too familiar for Irish supporters. Once again, the home side found themselves in a position of knowing that nothing less than three points would do against a direct rival for qualification, and once again Ireland fell short in their mission. With the qualifiers just passing the halfway mark, there is still time for Martin O’Neill’s men to resuscitate their faltering campaign, but without a sucker punch landed on their nearest competitors, they now need to land a decisive blow while also depending on favours from elsewhere – not an ideal position in which to find yourself.

In the build-up to every Ireland home qualifying match in recent years against a team pushing for qualification, one damning statistic is thrown out. The Irish have not won in Dublin against a nation ranked ahead of them in a competitive match since the fabled victory over Netherlands in September 2001. Time and again, when Ireland need to take the impetus and record a significant win in qualifying action, the best they can muster is a valiant draw. On the face of it, taking points off the likes of Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic and Italy, as the Irish have done in recent campaigns, is a job well done. However, none of these teams tasted defeat in Dublin, while they have come a cropper away to countries on a similar standing with Ireland.

In truth, Ireland’s current squad is not blessed with world-beating talent. Shay Given is a quality goalkeeper, but at 39 and having already come out of international retirement once, he is a short-term option. The same can be said for John O’Shea, who will feel he could have done more to prevent Scotland’s equaliser on Saturday. Seamus Coleman has ability but, for club and country, has been well below his best in recent months. Wes Hoolahan is 33 and, for whatever reason, is not trusted by the management to be a guaranteed starter. Robbie Keane’s goal record is outstanding, but he too is on his last legs in a green shirt and there is no alternative who you can confidently say will be as potent in front of goal. Elsewhere, the team is passable to plain ordinary. Compare that with Germany’s array of talent, a Poland team spearheaded by the lethal Robert Lewandowski and an ever-improving Scotland and maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Ireland currently occupy fourth place in Group D.

Ireland really can do better, though. There is a resilience about the squad which has kept them in contention, with five points being won thanks to stoppage-time interventions in Georgia and Germany, and at home to Poland. Look at the other groups in the European qualifiers, though, and nations with resources similar to, or even less than, Ireland’s are far better placed to earn a passage to France next summer. Iceland are two points clear at the top of a group which contains Netherlands, the Czechs and Turkey. Wales have a three-point advantage at the summit of Group B, although they are currently reaping the benefits of a splendid playing generation like that enjoyed by the Irish in the early 1990s. Slovakia have a 100% record in Group C, having beaten reigning champions Spain last year. Northern Ireland, with a playing pool inferior to numbers compared to their southern neighbours, are very well placed to qualify. Austria lead their group by four points ahead of Sweden. If all of these can realistically expect to make it to the finals more than halfway throughout the qualifiers, then why shouldn’t Ireland do likewise?

The biggest obstacle is probably that of mentality. Ireland have sorely lacked that cold-blooded edge since the early 21st century when they put the Dutch to the sword and did not look out of place at the 2002 World Cup, losing only on penalties to Spain. The conclusion of their qualifying bid for the 2010 tournament showed their inability to see the job through. They led against Italy in stoppage time, a result that would have left them poised to qualify automatically, but conceded a preventable equaliser. In the notorious play-off in France, they won 1-0 in 90 minutes to level the tie going into extra time, only to fall victim to Thierry Henry’s well-documented illegal intervention. Even without that regrettable incident, there was no guarantee that the French wouldn’t have scored later in the game anyway. Ireland understandably sounded off over the Henry handball, as any other nation would have done in that situation, but the FAI became the laughing stock of world football when ridiculously appealing to FIFA to be the 33rd team at the World Cup – even though Sepp Blatter’s ignorant addressing of that issue to his subjects was disgustingly patronising and insulting to Ireland.

Even among the Irish populace, there is an element of accepting mediocrity. Despite being in a very tough group at Euro 2012, Ireland flopped miserably. That ought to have been the cue for Giovanni Trapattoni to step down, or at least for voluble calls for him to go, but the general mood in Ireland was that they were happy just to be there. It wasn’t until qualification for the following World Cup became an impossibility that Trapattoni walked, by which stage the damage had been done. That ill-fated campaign was defined by a 1-6 home thrashing by Germany, the concession of a stoppage-time equaliser at home to Austria and defeat by Sweden, again in Dublin, after taking an early lead. In most other European nations, the overseer would have been run out of town long before those occurrences materialised, but in Ireland, shoulders were shrugged as if to say ‘Ah sure, it’s disappointing but what’s new?’

When O’Neill, assisted by national icon Roy Keane, became Trapattoni’s successor in winter 2013, it seemed an ideal appointment. He was a proven winner who exuded passion and had Ireland in his blood. After a satisfactory honeymoon period, the former Celtic boss is falling into the same traps as his predecessors when it comes to the defining matches. In big games, Ireland play with fear and uncertainty, with too many players not willing to take responsibility or simply not good enough to take the game by the scruff of the neck. They are not an attractive team to watch, relying frequently on a long ball to the attackers, and even though they have made a habit of rescuing points late on in games, there was never a sense that they would turn one point into three against the Scots last weekend.

Ireland have good players, but they are sorely missing a truly top talent who can carry the team and also lack a real leader on the field. Without these ingredients, they will remain a mundane side who, even with UEFA’s help in expanding the European Championships from 16 to 24, will struggle to qualify for big tournaments. The failings of recent campaigns will most likely see the Irish placed in the fourth pot of seeds for the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw next month. If that comes to pass, with second only being good enough to earn a play-off, Ireland will need a highly fortunate draw to be in contention to reach Russia – and also the wherewithal to capitalise on any such luck.

Of course, the immediate focus is on getting to France next year. It remains a possibility, but Ireland will realistically need to win at least three of their remaining four matches. Assuming they see off Gibraltar and Georgia, that leaves them with critical games at home to Germany and away to Poland. One, if not, both of those will need to be beaten, which will require Ireland doing something they haven’t managed in 14 years, namely winning a competitive match against a higher-ranked nation. As things stand, it’s difficult to see that happening and even if their direct qualification rivals take points off each other or stumble in Georgia (Gibraltar are a nailed-on three points), it might not be enough for Ireland. As O’Neill and Keane sift through the wreckage of the two matches against Scotland, Irish football fans are preparing once more to cope with that sobering feeling of failure – unless the team dispenses with recent history and finally records a competitive victory of a significant note.

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27-year-old Liverpool supporter from Ireland with a keen interest in Irish, English and European football. Been writing about football in either a personal or professional capacity since I was 12.

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Everton 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from Goodison Park

Jake Jackman

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Manchester United

Manchester United managed to return to winning ways with an impressive away victory against Everton. This is a fixture that has caused United with problems down the years and Wayne Rooney was the focus of attention in the build-up as it was going to be only his second appearance against the club since leaving in the summer. It was a quiet one for the forward, as he picked up a yellow card and didn’t threaten as much as he would have hoped. The visitors took the three points thanks to strikes from Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. Here are three talking points from Goodison Park:

Jesse Lingard continues to impress and deserves his place in the starting eleven

The 25-year-old has been a slow developer, but he looks ready to step up a level and become a regular starter for Manchester United. He has been a good squad player for the club since breaking through as a young player, but he is now ready to make the move up to be a more important player at Old Trafford. He ended 2017 in impressive form and has started the new year in the same vein.

The attacking midfielder scored the second goal of the evening, as he struck an excellent effort to beat Jordan Pickford and put the result beyond doubt. He wasn’t short of confidence and looked to take shots at every opportunity. Lingard attempted five shots and his direct approach is one of the reasons he is in the team, as United need more goals from their midfield.

Lingard is an entertaining player to watch and isn’t afraid to take responsibility and run with the ball. He completed three dribbles against Everton and caused problems every time he got on the ball. Creatively, he will be hoping to improve during the coming weeks, as he made only one key pass on Monday. At times, his decision making could be improved, but he is headed in the right direction and his form in front of goal means that Jose Mourinho can’t drop him.

Everton need to sign a new striker

They didn’t have to deal with the return of Romelu Lukaku to Goodison Park as he was missing through injury, but it was clear that Everton need to sign a new striker in January. Oumar Niasse led the line against Manchester United and there was some good movement from him and the rest of the attacking players, but they caused few problems for the opposition when they had the ball.

The 27-year-old hasn’t fully convinced any of the three managers that he has played under at the club and it is unlikely that he is going to be the answer up front. There is no criticising his effort, as he was a willing runner and tried to impress, as his four successful dribbles show. However, he doesn’t have the required ability to deliver the level of performance that Everton want from their main striker.

Everton have been heavily linked with Besiktas striker Cenk Tosun and there had been speculation that a fee had been agreed, but the Mirror report that the deal is no in danger of collapse. It is a risk to sign a striker from Turkey and expect them to replicate the same form in the Premier League, but he appears to be the club’s primary target at the time of writing. If they can’t get his transfer over the line, they must move on to other targets. The current striking options aren’t good enough for a team with the Toffees’ ambition.

Paul Pogba showed why he is important to Manchester United

The French international continues to be doubted by many that like to point towards his huge transfer fee, but his influence can’t be understated. Paul Pogba is the most important player in the current Manchester United team. The club haven’t lost a Premier League game when the midfielder has played since October 2016. Meanwhile, United have lost five matches without him during this period.

Pogba is a forward-thinking player and is always looking to play positive passes. During the match, he completed five key passes and assisted both goals. As a creative presence from deep, there are few better players in the Premier League and there is hope that he can step up to the next level during 2018. He has been touted as a future Ballon d’Or winner and there is no reason why he can’t do that at Old Trafford.

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Three talking points from Newcastle United’s comeback against West Brom

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Newcastle United fought back from 2-0 down to end their losing streak in the Premier League against West Bromwich Albion. They played poorly for much of the game, but their performance in the last 30 minutes has given them something to build on. This was a precious point and one that could be looked back on as a turning point at the end of the season. The Baggies will be disappointed that they weren’t able to hold on to the lead and it is crucial that they appoint a new manager sooner rather than later. Here are three talking points from the match:

Aleksandar Mitrovic needs to start

This has been a hotly debated topic on social media as Newcastle supporters have been demanding that Mitrovic is given a chance to start in then Premier League. Since Rafa Benitez was appointed as manager at St James’ Park, his relationship with the striker has been rocky. The Spaniard is a control freak and likes to have players that he can trust. He doesn’t trust the 23-year-old and that is why he has been on the sidelines. There is no doubting his talent, but he can’t be relied upon to carry out the manager’s instructions.

In recent matches, Newcastle have offered little in the final third, with Joselu being one of the players that has received most criticism for that. He offers little goal threat and needs to be taken out of the firing line to save what is left of his confidence. Mitrovic offered a lot more when he came on, as he ran the channels and worked hard pressing the opposition defenders. His link-up play was better than Joselu’s and he managed to score, although it was disallowed for an earlier offside. Benitez needs to change something in his attack and the Serbian deserves a chance.

Salomon Rondon has a lot more to offer West Brom

There was a lot of excitement when Salomon Rondon signed for West Brom and he has yet to live up to that billing. His performance against Newcastle suggested that he has more to offer the club and that a new manager could be what he needed to fulfil his potential. During the match, he won three aerial duels, completed two dribbles and made one key pass. It was a great display from the striker as he showed intelligent movement and link-up play, playing a huge role in the Baggies attack.

In the first-half, the Venezuelan international hit the bar from range, as he displayed incredible technical skill to scare Karl Darlow in the Newcastle goal. The one disappointment will have been his role in the equalising goal, as Matt Ritchie’s free-kick was deflected off the striker, but there was little he could do about it. Overall, it was an encouraging performance and continued his positive momentum since the sacking of Pulis.

Newcastle miss Jamaal Lascelles

There would have been many Newcastle supporters that would not have had Lascelles in their starting eleven this season, despite the centre-back being their captain. The second-half of the Championship season was underwhelming for him, as he made several mistakes and looked nervy in possession. However, he was suffering with a hernia problem and in reflection, it was clearly affecting him on the pitch. This season, he has been one of the stars of this Magpies team and moved into the thinking of Gareth Southgate.

Since the centre-back suffered an injury against Bournemouth, Newcastle have picked up only one point and conceded ten times in only three and a half matches. In the 10 matches prior, the Magpies had only conceded nine goals and it has become evident that Lascelles is key to their survival hopes. They miss the organisation and leadership that he offers, as it brings a calmness to the rest of the team. The sooner he is back, the better for Rafa Benitez and this group of players.

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Aleksandar Mitrovic’s career at Newcastle United is reaching another crossroads

Jake Jackman

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Mitrovic

It is clear to anybody watching that Newcastle United need a top-tier striker if they are to make the step up to the next level. In the long-term, Rafa Benitez will have one on his shopping list, but there may be a temporary solution within the current squad. There has been a lot of clamour from supporters on social media for Aleksandar Mitrovic to be given a chance in the first-team. The Serbian international has had a turbulent career since signing for the Magpies, but there is no denying that he has talent and has the potential to be a good Premier League centre-forward.

Newcastle face a difficult test against Manchester United this weekend and their main problems lie in attack, with the team failing to score in their last two Premier League fixtures. Joselu was a cheap summer signing from Stoke City and although he has shown some encouraging signs, he isn’t the natural goalscorer that the side needs. Dwight Gayle was the club’s leading scorer in the Championship last season, but there remain doubts about his ability to replicate that form at the highest level. Both have been given a chance to make the starting spot their own and they have failed to convince. Mitrovic could be the best option of the three.

Since Benitez arrived towards the end of the 2015/16 campaign, he has had a mixed relationship with Mitrovic. There was hope that the arrival of a world class manager would bring the best out of the striker and see him develop into the player that everyone hoped he would be when he joined from Anderlecht.

Their working relationship got off to a good start as the Serbian scored the first goal of the Benitez era. Mitrovic was a handful against Sunderland in the North East derby and got the equaliser to prevent an early embarrassment for his new manager. Despite the club’s relegation during that season, the young striker was one of the rare bright spots as he scored nine Premier League goals in a poor team.

He scored on the final day in the Magpies’ convincing win over Tottenham. It came too late to save them, but the performance on that day and the reaction from the supporters was enough to convince Benitez to stay on as manager, as he saw the potential of the club. It wasn’t the only thing that the manager saw that day. The naivety of Mitrovic’s character was on display as he earned a needless red card. There was no reason to make the challenge and that action has led to his current position in the Newcastle squad. That is a squad player that can’t be trusted.

Newcastle put together a strong squad to attempt to achieve promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt. Dwight Gayle arrived and there was a competition to be the starting striker at St James’ Park. The number nine shirt was vacant, with Gayle and Mitrovic both vying for it. The former was given the honour and that was the first sign that it would be a frustrating campaign for the Serbian. He will have been annoyed by his role, but he only had himself to blame as his stupidity against Tottenham earned him a four-match suspension to serve at the beginning of the new season.

Benitez couldn’t build a team around a striker that wouldn’t be available for the start of the season. The Newcastle boss is a perfectionist and he needs to have full trust in each of his players to carry out his instructions. The unpredictability of Mitrovic means that he doesn’t have that with the striker. Last season, the 23-year-old started only 11 of the 46 Championship matches. Considering he is an international that cost £13 million, it was expected that he would take the second tier by storm. The reality was that he wasn’t mentally ready to take on that role.

During the summer, there were rumours linking Mitrovic with a move away from St James’ Park. Benitez would have been unlikely to oppose an exit if a fair offer came in, but the lack of funds given to the Spaniard in the transfer market meant that he couldn’t afford to lose the Serbian. It put him in a difficult spot, as he knows he isn’t wanted, but he is doing little to force his manager to change his mind.

Against West Ham United, Mitrovic was given his first chance of the season from the bench and what followed was a microcosm of his Newcastle United career. He missed a great chance, scored the next and then elbowed Manuel Lanzini. Although he wasn’t sent off on the day, he was later hit with a retrospective ban and he has only been seen once since.

One of the prominent reasons why supporters want to see him back in the starting eleven is his form for Serbia. Although he hasn’t been playing regularly for the Magpies, he has been a key part of his national team’s success in qualifying for the World Cup. The 23-year-old scored six times in qualification and his consistency during the process suggests that he can become a very good player. Neither Gayle nor Joselu are scoring regularly and the feeling is that Mitrovic would offer a bigger goal threat.

The recent poor form in the final third has led to the supporters revisiting the Mitrovic issue. He splits the fan-base, but there are a lot of questions that have yet to answered. The growing calls for the striker to be given a chance will only increase with every game. Benitez needs to put an end to this issue once and for all. The manager may well be right in his judgement, but he needs to give the player one more chance. If it works out, then Newcastle will benefit. If it doesn’t, then it will be known, once and for all, that the striker doesn’t have a future on Tyneside.

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