Ireland must prove they are no thugs in Iceland friendly

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"Hit him!" That was Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane's tongue-in-cheek suggestion on how to stop Gareth Bale. And that's exactly what his players did against the Real Madrid superstar in the 0-0 draw with Wales on Friday.

From the outset, Bale was a marked man as the Boys in Green played cynically, with James McClean asserting himself on the game early on with physical play. Throughout, Ireland were brutish, strong, and willing to get a result by any means necessary. Glenn Whelan and Shane Long both led with their elbows when going for the ball, and on another day could have been disciplined by the referee.

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The match was a niggly one. Ireland's strategy was to put in a determined show of strength, something Wales boss Chris Coleman reflected on after full-time.

“It was a typically British derby game, there was needle all the way through the game." Coleman said.

"I’m not complaining about that. A couple of yourboys were lucky to stay on the pitch; it was a little bit of both. Your boys did not come off with halos above their heads."

However, Ireland's 'needle' seems to have been overlooked due to Seamus Coleman's horrific injury - with the Everton ace suffering a broken leg due to a bad tackle from Neil Taylor.

James McClean Gareth Bale Republic of Ireland Wales 28032017
Seamus Coleman, Ireland

The sell-out crowd at the Aviva Stadium went to see a football match, but left disheartened after seeing Ireland's captain go off on a stretcher during a spectacle that must go down as one of the least technical games ever played on Lansdowne Road.

The Boys in Green have never been blessed with wonderfully gifted players, even during the high point of the Jack Charlton era where they reached three major tournaments in six years. But the Ireland that took to the pitch on Friday was one that never looked to play football the way it should be played.

Ireland boss Martin O'Neill chose two burly, strong wingers in McClean and Jon Walters, with the often-frustrating but sometimes magical Aiden McGeady only deployed for the last 10 minutes when Wales had gone down to 10 men. McGeady was named Championship player of the month for February after some scintillating performances, but O'Neill wanted toughness instead of trickery over 90 minutes.

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McClean was named man of the match, but never looked like scoring or creating a goal. Instead, his performance was a dogged, determined one in which he played hard and tackled harder.

It's what Keane asked for from his players. But McClean is no Keane. The former Manchester United man was one of the best midfielders in the world during his day, lifting the Champions League and winning seven Premier League titles under Alex Ferguson.

Only one of Ireland's starting XI on Friday has ever played in the Champions League (John O'Shea during his time at United). Ireland are no longer blessed with talent like Keane or Damien Duff or Robbie Keane. But they do not need to play like thugs to win matches.

Tuesday's friendly with Iceland offers O'Neill and Keane the chance to show that their team can be technical, that they can play football, and win while playing something resembling 'The Beautiful Game'.

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There are four uncapped players waiting for their chance to show their country what they can do. Defenders Andy Boyle and John Egan could make their first appearance for Ireland, but it is further up the field where newcomers can make a difference.

Daryl Horgan lit up the Champions League qualifying rounds and the Europa League group stage as League of Ireland winnersDundalk made history, earning himself a move to Preston North End in the process. There, he has continued his excellent form, and looks more than at home in the Championship.

Conor Hourihane also plays in the English second tier, and is another creative talent who has arrived at a new club - with Aston Villa snapping him up from Barnsley having been on track to finish the season with over 10 league goals for the third campaign in a row.

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Horgan and Hourihane are footballers. They know what to do with the ball on the ground. They can create chances and convert them as well. Both are coming into their best years as players. They are the kind of talents that paying fans want to see on the field for Ireland.

The best moment at Euro 2016 came when Wes Hoolahan set up Robbie Brady to defeat Italy 1-0 and progress from the group. Hoolahan has long been Ireland's most skilful player, but is currently injured and, at 34, is past his prime.

Brady is set to captain the Boys in Green after missing the Wales game due to suspension, but should the player who O'Neill builds his team around. At 25, he has plenty of experience and youth on his side. He has an excellent left foot and is a threat from set-pieces, capable of picking out a pass and setting up goals.

O'Neill must let these players play against Iceland and prove Coleman wrong. Ireland can win football matches without resorting to cynical play, but they need to start proving it with the right team against Iceland.

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