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O’Shea’s shot to shine as Belgium come to town

Belgium come to the Aviva Stadium this evening for what must be the most high-profile friendly international in recent memory.

Four months on from the departure of Stephen Kenny as manager of the national team, a replacement has yet to be announced; John O’Shea tasked with taking the team through two games over the next four days.

Belgium first, followed by a quality Switzerland team on Tuesday evening, and if ever there was a chance to demonstrate management credentials, it should prove to be quite the test for the new man in charge.

“What game would you want? We’d want a big game, we’d want a tough task, and we have that with Belgium,” said O’Shea in Friday’s press conference.

It is less than four weeks since O’Shea was handed the job of managing the team while the FAI continue to delay in appointing a permanent replacement for Kenny.

And yet, already it somehow feels as though O’Shea is a perfect fit for the position.

The former Manchester United man has had to do quite the amount of media duties; the announcement, the naming of the squad, and right into the week-long build-up to the Belgium game.

And every word uttered thus far appears to be exactly as you would want from a young, enthusiastic and passionate manager who has played at the very top level of club football, while being one of the most capped players for his country.

Granted, he has yet to take charge of the team, and there is an argument that his credentials were tainted as part of the previous failed regime.

However, as O’Shea stated, there is a freshness to the squad, even if only a couple of new additions, but more so the backroom team, bringing in two excellent Irish footballing brains, Paddy McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, while the renaissance of Brian Kerr proved the perfect choice, generating an amazing amount of goodwill before a ball is even kicked.

Will Caoimhin Kelleher start in goal against the Belgians?

The manager has also emphasised the importance of club form, which should result in a very strong Ireland XI taking to the pitch this evening, helped by the fact that most of his big players are getting regular action in the Premier League.

O’Shea did not give too much away at the press conference; however, he did share a great amount of non-tactical information, generating a real sense of how the players and coaches will build up for a big international game.

The manager was planning to name the team on Friday, then continued to offer an insight into the inner sanctum for that vital hour ahead of the game, where he spoke about analysing the opposition team-sheet once it drops, talking to the squad, getting through the warm-ups and then allowing the players to take charge for those final motivating moments.

It all builds towards a very entertaining and exciting evening as the highly rated Belgians stand in the way of handing O’Shea the perfect platform for the permanent position.

O’Shea spoke about how he set the tone for the week during his first conversation with the squad, but also accepted that the vital work would start once that whistle goes and his expertise is really brought into operation.

Tactical decisions from opposition managers proved crucial during games against Ireland in the Euro qualifiers, most notably against Greece and the Netherlands, and O’Shea will, no doubt, relish that task throughout the 90 minutes.

“We’ll talk about a structure, we’ll talk about a plan, and ultimately if Belgium come up with a different shape tomorrow, you have to adapt and have the key personnel in place,” said O’Shea.

“Whether you need a little break in the game, whenever that might be, to get those points across, but also a trust in your players that they can solve problems initially too.

“You have the help of your analyst, with information getting fed down from above. If you can see it as quickly as possible on the side of the pitch, ultimately that’s the best thing.”

And not that O’Shea had to reference Alex Ferguson, but he was asked a question as to why he was such a versatile player, and the answer also emphasised his belief in his own football knowledge.

“The manager at the time had a lot of trust in me, and he seen my ability to cope, using both feet and having a footballing knowledge of understanding positions to do a job in certain areas,” said O’Shea.

“I hope it was having an understanding of the game.”

Brian Kerr and Glenn Whelan have been watching training closely

O’Shea has given little away in terms of team selection and again showed his thorough knowledge of the players at his disposal as he said that he did not get any surprises this week in training.

He did, however, mention the scrutiny that his team of backroom staff were putting on the players and it should result in an interesting first XI of O’Shea’s managerial career.

In goal, it’s a straight 50:50 between Gavin Bazunu and Caoimhin Kelleher, and while he mentioned the Liverpool player’s recent form, it would be hard to dislodge the current number one without good reason – either way, the manager will not be concerned about which player starts between the posts.

In defence, there is a sense that O’Shea will start with a four, but again he has a big decision to make in almost every position.

Nathan Collins and Dara O’Shea would appear the obvious choice centrally, however, both Jake O’Brien and Andrew Omobamidele are arriving with good club form so it may come down to partnerships and what has worked best this week on the training ground.

Matt Doherty has played more club football than Seamus Coleman recently, however, O’Shea may want to start with his captain, who will be a mirror image of himself on the pitch and there is no one more honest or passionate than the Everton man, so if he says he is ready, there will be no reason not to play him.

On the left side of defence, the manager now has three options with the late arrival of Ryan Manning, but there is a sense that he brought Robbie Brady back for a reason and he should get the nod ahead of Festy Ebosele.

The talk all week may have been about winning games, however, O’Shea will be more focused on keeping things tight at the back in this opening game and if a clean sheet is achieved, it will be regarded as a success, whether the win comes or not.

So for that reason, he will probably sacrifice a forward for a packed central midfield with Josh Cullen anchoring as usual with perhaps Jason Knight and Will Smallbone bringing the energy alongside.

There would be a strong argument for a front four with two wide men – Mikey Johnston and Chiedozie Ogbene – combining with Evan Ferguson leading the line with Sammie Szmodics playing in the role of a number 10.

However, as mentioned, the midfield will account for a frontman, so O’Shea might have to do without the 10, and ask the two wide men to work in off the flanks.

Alternatively, he could opt for a dynamic duo up front, like Adam Idah playing alongside Ferguson, with a diamond midfield in behind.

It’s all speculation, but the encouraging thing about whatever attacking formation that is picked, there is form and goals there, which should lead to a confident attacking display.

The opponents may not be fully tuned into the importance of this game for Ireland, as they will again look to test out players for their Euro squad, with some key members missing like Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.

If so, the playing field may be levelled somewhat, however, if they come in competitive mode, as they showed in Euro 2016, it could be another tough night for Ireland and John O’Shea, who paid a big price following that chastening 3-0 defeat in Bordeaux.

Follow a live blog on Republic of Ireland v Belgium this Saturday from 5pm on rte.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app and listen to commentary on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1


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