Republic of Ireland v Serbia
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Poor Georgia showing increases pressure on Republic
Martin O'Neill was in combative form ahead of Ireland's World Cup qualifier with Serbia tomorrow and he needs his team to adopt the same approach if they are to prevail.
O'Neill's men have been on the receiving end of sharp criticism since struggling to a draw with Georgia on Saturday. Ireland went ahead in the third minute and retreated to give the advantage away in a first half performance that was panned by critics. Former international Keith Andrews described it as 'one of the worst displays he'd ever seen' from an Irish team.
It has left O'Neill's men in a difficult position ahead of the visit of group leaders. A win in Georgia would have kept them joint top with the Serbs and in a situation where Tuesday's game was a free shot with the cushion of knowing that a second place finish was still entirely likely in the event of defeat.
Now Ireland are under pressure. They can still go top with two games remaining if they beat Serbia. But if they fail to win the game, they will be placed third at the end of this double heading presuming that Wales win away to a weak Moldova side.
Three successive draws have checked the momentum from a brilliant start to the campaign and Serbia arrive in town full of confidence following a routine success over Moldova. They have better players than Ireland, but they have not exactly steamrolled through the group to get to this position - they came from behind to win in Georgia after a poor first half performance and a nabbed a late equaliser in Wales when they were on the verge of suffering a defeat.
They kicked off the campaign with a 2-2 game at home to Ireland that was notable for the lack of quality from both sides. When Serbia went ahead, with 20 minutes to go they lost their way completely and were desperately uncomfortable when Ireland went the direct route in search of parity. That will offer encouragement ahead of the game at Aviva; Ireland's lack of comfort in possession was notable on Saturday but O'Neill was disappointed by how slow they were to close down opponents.
Striker Jon Walters made the same point. He said Ireland's best performances in recent memory have come with a high tempo approach that has made life hell for their opponents. However, the three day turnaround and concerns over the wellbeing of Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady - two players that were in contention to come in and freshen up the side - raise doubts about Ireland's ability to thoroughly execute their plan.
As it happens, some of their best performances under O'Neill have come off the back of a disappointing showing. They beat Germany in Dublin in the last campaign when they had previously scraped past Georgia. In Euro 2016, they conquered Italy after a dreadful showing against Belgium. But this is a big ask in the aftermath of a long trip back from Georgia and a lethargic showing with an ageing squad.
Ireland will produce a response and put it up to their visitors. Serbia will fancy their chances but they also know a point is now a very acceptable return that would push them closer to Russia. A draw beckons at 3.20
Goals likely at both ends
Serbia have conceded an average of a goal per game in the campaign and certainly give teams opportunities. Ireland have the best defensive record in the group but it will take a mammoth effort to frustrate a Serbian side packed with creative talent - and Ireland's need to go for it if this game is level pegging should naturally create opportunities. In all these scenarios, the 1.98 about both teams scoring appeals.
Duffy a big price to make it two goals in two
Shane Duffy broke the deadlock for Ireland on Saturday - his first goal for his country - so it may seem strange to recommend that the centre-half follows it up. But Serbian keeper Predrag Rajković was so unconvincing when the sides met last September that set pieces will be key for Ireland and the giant centre-half is always the main target. It's worth a speculative few quid.
Back the Draw at 3.20
Back Shane Duffy to score at 11.00
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