After witnessing the nation’s rugby union team wreck England’s hopes of making history and their chances of winning consecutive Six Nations grand slams for the first time in over half a century, the Aviva Stadium welcomes back football on Friday night when Ireland host Wales in their World Cup qualifier.
It will not be as enthralling as the Six Nations finale but with the Republic top of the qualifying group and sensing the chance to open a 7-point gap over Wales in third, it promises to be pivotal. Second place Serbia travel to Georgia earlier in the evening in a match they will be expecting to win so the trip across the Irish Sea presents Chris Coleman’s men with a test they cannot afford to fail.
After the feel-good factor from their brilliant Euro 2016 campaign continued apace with the 4-0 thrashing of Moldova in the opening match, a team so comfortable in sucking in pressure before seizing on the spaces presented on the counter had its limitations exposed by organised units in Serbia and Georgia who refused to buckle once Gareth Bale had struck early goals.
Having experienced giddy success in playing the underdog when qualifying for France 2016 and then during that wondrous run last summer, Coleman was wise enough to accept his team were now a prized scalp in a competitive group before a trip to Austria in October.
Wales earned an impressive 2-2 draw in Vienna but the following two draws in Cardiff were disappointing. A defeat to Ireland will leave the Dragons with a mountain to climb in Group D as they attempt to reach their first World Cup since 1958.
Coleman will be relieved to have Bale, scorer of 22 goals from his last 34 appearances for his country, available again after recovering from the ankle injury he picked up playing for Real Madrid in November, but the manager will be equally pleased about the return of Aaron Ramsey from a recent calf strain.
The Arsenal midfielder has played just once for Wales since Euro 2016, in the draw with Serbia, and Coleman will be willing him to reproduce the clever runs into space that made his synergy with Bale so effective in the run up to the Championships in France.
It is Ramsey, who created 2 of the 3 goals in the superb 3-1 demolition of Belgium in Lille last year before his suspension in the semi-final ensured he was badly missed in the defeat to Portugal, who is the team’s creative hub and who supplements the prolific Bale perfectly.
A fragmented campaign for Arsenal blighted by injuries has seen his form suffer since last summer, but on Friday, he is likely to be at the tip of a midfield that will contain the combative Joe Ledley and, crucial in such a heated match, the calm and controlled ball distribution of Joe Allen.
Insured by the five-man defence that will be marshalled by their fearless captain Ashley Williams together with Chris Gunter and James Collins, Coleman will arrive in Dublin with a familiar-looking squad, though it is doubtful the chance to cap Liverpool’s promising 17-year-old Ben Woodburn to ward off any English advances is unlikely to present itself.
Ipswich’s exciting talent Tom Lawrence, with 9 goals and 7 assists to his name in this season’s Championship, is the main injury blow, denying him the chance to build on his 5 caps and Coleman the chance to call on his pace and direct trickery from the wing.
However Lawrence’s replacement in the squad, Liverpool’s Harry Wilson, who has just a single FA Cup appearance to his name at Anfield despite being 20 years of age, suggests a potential drying-up of the talent stream.
Meanwhile it is in the Irish camp where the injuries are to be found, with first-choice central defensive partnership Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark ruled-out, Harry Arter and Daryl Murphy both side-lined alongside, perhaps most costly to Martin O’Neill, Wes Hoolahan.
O’Neill, preparing to make at least 5 changes to the side that won in Austria in November, will miss the Norwich midfielder’s invention in attack as well as that of Robbie Brady who is suspended, and with James McCarthy’s inclusion also in doubt due to a hamstring strain it will be interesting to see how much Coleman relinquishes the shackles off his team.
Trailing in the group by 4 points, the impetus is on Wales to attack and with no Hoolahan to monitor while Jonathan Walters and Shane Long, both tireless runners but unlikely to pose too many questions to a naturally deep defensive-line, it could permit Coleman to move a man forward and revert to a four-man defence.
The coach has sought to douse the hype surrounding the fixture, saying “people say this is do-or-die, I don’t see that – all I see is a great challenge…. we can’t control how the game is billed by everyone else – people saying it’s the last chance – we will prepare like any other game.”
But one suspects that if Wales fail to take advantage of Ireland’s absentees given the context of the match it will be an opportunity missed for a team rooted in an identity that earned European Championship success but now threatens to hold them back as they move on to trying to reach Russia in 2018.
O’Neill, no stranger to drilling his teams for matches where the odds are stacked against them, is in predictably bullish mood. “They are relatively strong and we’re not at our strongest. That said we’ll be ready for the game” he said. “We’ll field a side for the game; we’ll get prepared and be ready for the game, absolutely ready for the match.”
Ireland can also be highly effective at sucking teams in before striking on the counter and their lack of personnel, compounded by their status as group leaders, may necessitate such a game-plan. If Wales do the same and attempt to rely on the star quality of Bale, whom Coleman has warned Ireland there is no point in trying to kick, they may find what previously served them so well has quickly moved them to stagnation.