After an impressive Euro 2016 campaign, Ireland will look to build on their performance with a strong World Cup qualifying campaign which begins with a tough trip to Serbia.
Martin O’Neill’s side came up short in the last 16 after giving hosts France an early scare and if they continue that form into the World Cup qualifiers, there is no reason to think the Boys in Green can reach the finals at Russia in 2018.
First up for the Irish is an away trip to Serbia who will prove tough opposition for Martin O’Neill’s side but if the team can play with confidence that we saw in France, Ireland can very much get up and running with three points on the board.
Shay Given and Robbie Keane may have hung up their boots for Ireland but there is still plenty of talent in this squad that can do a job in Belgrade, with Robbie Brady an important player down the left-wing.
While it is astonishing at such a hard-working and talented player did not get a move to the Premier League following Norwich’s relegation, Brady was a star for Ireland at Euro 2016 and will be an important asset for Ireland’s qualifying campaign.
There is still a debate whether he is more effective in an attacking threat or as a wing-back down the left hand side but he has proven effective in both roles. Ireland do have problems at left-back so he could start today’s game there with James McClean in front of him.
Another important player will be Brady’s fellow Norwich man Wes Hoolahan and the attacking midfielder proved quite the asset in France with his attacking threat and hard work ethic. He may be 34 but he is a very important player for Ireland in the number ten role.
With Robbie Keane saying goodbye in last week’s 4-0 friendly win over Oman, Shane Long will now be Ireland’s main man up front and although he will never match Keane’s goalscoring record, he adds a speedy attacking threat that will give opposition many headaches.
In the centre of the park, James McCarthy will be missing through injury, so Harry Arter could start alongside new Burnley signing Jeff Hendrick, who also proved to be a key player in Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign.
It is a no brainer that the Dubliner will start tonight but the question is whether O’Neill keeps the faith with Glenn Whelan or goes with Arter, who missed the European Championships through injury.
In the backline, Seamus Coleman and John O’Shea are available after missing last week’s friendly win over Oman, with Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh pushing for a start alongside O’Shea or we may see both start if O’Shea is not 100%.
Darren Randolph is the number one choice in goal after a number of impressive performances between the sticks, although it looks like it will be another season on the bench at West Ham for the 29-year-old.
Martin O’Neill has been known to spring a few surprises here and there but as long as Brady, Long and Hoolahan are in the starting line-up, this Irish side can beat a Serbian side, who have a few familiar faces.
It is Slavoljub Muslin’s first game in charge of the Serbians so they will want to impress their new boss with a win but key players Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov will miss out through suspension.
Southampton winger Dusan Tadic and Newcastle forward Aleksandar Mitrovic are familiar names in the line-up as well as Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic at right-back in a tough looking Serbian defence.
They missed out on Euro 2016 with Albania finishing above them but despite recent woes, Serbia will prove to be tough opposition will a solid defence and some talented youngsters but Chelsea’s Matic will be a huge miss in midfield for Muslin’s side.
It is the first game of World Cup qualifying so there may be some nerves and will a win would be great, a draw in Belgrade would not be a bad result. It is too early to say that a loss would seriously dent Ireland’s chances but it looks like this will be a competitive group.
Ireland managed to avoid a heavyweight and with Wales and Austria our other opposition in the group, Ireland are definitely capable of winning group D and book a first World Cup appearance since 2002.
Prediction: Serbia 1-1 Ireland