Football: Ireland can still progress, insists O'Neill

Wales forward Hal Robson-Kanu heads his team into the lead in their World Cup qualifier against Moldova following a cross from substitute Ben Woodburn. Wales went on to win 2-0 to move up to second in Group D.
Wales forward Hal Robson-Kanu heads his team into the lead in their World Cup qualifier against Moldova following a cross from substitute Ben Woodburn. Wales went on to win 2-0 to move up to second in Group D. PHOTO: REUTERS

Even after 1st home loss of his Ireland tenure that drops them to 3rd, coach stays positive

DUBLIN • Republic of Ireland coach Martin O'Neill is confident his side can still qualify for the World Cup Finals next year despite a damaging home defeat by Serbia.

The 1-0 defeat, courtesy of Aleksandar Kolarov's second-half strike, pushed Ireland down to third place in Group D, with Wales' 2-0 win in Moldova lifting them up to second.

With two games left, Serbia are nearly through to the Finals in Russia as group leaders.

Ireland face Moldova in Dublin next month before concluding their campaign against Wales in Cardiff and even two wins would not guarantee them a place in the play-offs.

There are nine groups in the European qualifiers but only the eight best runners-up will make it through to the play-offs.

Fifa said the runner-up rankings would be decided on points, then goal difference, goals scored, goals scored away from home and finally disciplinary ranking.

Matches against the last-placed teams in the groups will not be taken into account.

Wales currently have the worst record of the nine second-placed teams with eight points and a goal difference of +1 - not including the two wins against bottom-placed Moldova. Bosnia and Herzegovina are also on eight points but have a goal difference of +2 after their two wins over Gibraltar are chalked off.

O'Neill, who guided Ireland through the play-offs to Euro 2016, was confident despite the first home defeat of his Ireland tenure.

"Absolutely not," he said, when asked if the defeat spelled the end of Ireland's chances. "We can win our last two games, we can still make it. No doubt, I'm very confident we can win both games.

"I said that to the players in the dressing room. Obviously, we've a lot of disappointed players after that performance but these are not big words from me, it's how I feel."

Ireland were more impressive than they had been in drawing 1-1 against Georgia at the weekend but failed to seriously trouble Vladimir Stojkovic in the Serbia goal.

Daryl Murphy, who disrupted the Serbian defence when he came off the bench late on, had a penalty claim but Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir waved the appeals away.

"I didn't see it but the players are adamant it was a penalty kick. They said it was clear-cut," O'Neill added. "The referee has chosen not to give it. But I thought the players were fantastic, they gave every ounce for the shirt, every single ounce, they'd nothing left."

Wales had to depend on late goals from Hal Robson-Kanu and Aaron Ramsey to spare their blushes against Group D's bottom side.

Wales coach Chris Coleman sent on 17-year-old Ben Woodburn, who scored the winner on his international debut against Austria on Saturday, on the hour mark.

The Liverpool forward did not get his name on the scoresheet but provided the cross for Robson-Kanu to score the all-important breakthrough goal in the 80th minute.

On reflection Coleman would have preferred Ireland to have beaten Serbia to have a shot at finishing top but his side's momentum could be the key to qualifying for Russia.

"It is in Serbia's hands, they set the pace and it is their group to lose," Coleman said.

"If we have to get through the play-off, absolutely, no problem at all we will do it.

"It will be a huge game in Tbilisi (against Georgia) next, we have to try to keep it alive and keep going."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2017, with the headline 'We can progress, insists O'Neill'. Print Edition | Subscribe