Republic of Ireland look to continue their unbeaten start to the World Cup qualifying campaign, but manager Martin O’Neill faces an injury headache ahead of a tough test against Wales.
The Boys in Green currently sit top of Group D with ten points from four games, including a 1-0 win over Austria in Vienna last November as so far things look promising for Ireland to reach next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
However, Martin O’Neill is missing a number of players for the visit of Wales including Norwich playmaker Wes Hoolahan, who has a thigh injury, and Burnley winger Robbie Brady who is suspended.
Striker Daryl Murphy, midfielder Harry Arter (quad) and defensive duo Ciaran Clark (knee) and Shane Duffy (broken metatarsal) are also all out injured for Ireland, as Martin O’Neill faces a selection headache ahead of their toughest game in qualifying thus far.
O’Neill has a tough choice to make, but an easy pick is Darren Randolph in goal with the West Ham goalkeeper the number one choice since a fine display in a 1-0 win over Germany in October 2015.
The 29-year-old has also become the number one choice for West Ham in the past few weeks but Irish fans will hope for a much display from him tonight, having not been in the greatest of form for the Hammers in recent weeks.
With Ireland’s normal defensive partnership of Clark and Duffy both out injured, it means a shake up at the heart of defence with Derby’s Richard Keogh and veteran John O’Shea the likely starters.
This partnership does not give me the utmost confidence that Ireland can keep a clean sheet but this duo is the best O’Neill has available to him in a bid to stop Bale and co.
The only other choices for central defence are Derby’s Alex Pearce, while a debut for either former Dundalk man Andy Boyle or Brentford’s John Egan is unlikely for such a big game.
Seamus Coleman sat out training on Wednesday but the Everton defender is fit to start at right-back, while Stephen Ward is the only man to replace the suspended Brady at left-back.
Everton midfielder James McCarthy has trained with the squad the past two days as he recovers from a hamstring injury and O’Neill must decide whether to take a big risk on the 26-year-old.
Whether McCarthy is passed fit or not, a three-man midfield is be the way to go against Chris Coleman’s attack-minded side, with attacking midfielder Hoolahan a big miss for Ireland, who would normally play in the number ten role.
Hull’s David Meyler and Burnley’s Jeff Hendrick will be most the likely men to start along side McCarthy in the centre of the pitch but if McCarthy is ruled out, Stoke’s Glenn Whelan could start.
West Brom winger James McClean will start on the left-wing and the Northern Irishman will wear the number five shirt as a tribute to close friend and former Derry teammate Ryan McBride, who suddenly passed away last Sunday.
In-form Preston winger Aiden McGeady will be pushing for a start on the right-side but I think O’Neill will more likely go with Jon Walters on the right hand side, with the 33-year-old scoring for Stoke in last weekend’s 2-1 defeat to Chelsea.
Shane Long has also overcome a knock to be fit to start as the sole striker up front, as the Southampton man looks to cause problems for the Welsh defence.
There is no doubt that Brady in particular is a big miss for the Boys in Green, but there is no reason to doubt that Ireland can get the job done with this team and the home fans cheering them on.
Wales are without a doubt the toughest side Ireland will face, as they showed great team cohesion and passion in reaching the semi-finals of the European Championships last summer and eyes will no doubt be on Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale in the Aviva Stadium.
Bale is without a doubt the danger man up front for Wales but the Ireland defence will be hoping to keep the Real Madrid man quiet because if they give him the space, he will punish them will his trickery and long-range strikes.
There are plenty of faces we will recognise in the Wales line-up such as Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Hal Robson-Kanu and although they are not a team full of amazing players, they are a very hard-working and attack-minded team.
Wales may not have a victory over Ireland since 1992 but this is a very good Wales side who will be hoping to overcome a slow start to their campaign and put the pressure on Ireland for top spot in Group D.
Ireland’s performances over the opening four games in qualifying have not been the most thrilling, but they have been grinding out results and that is what matters as the Boys in Green have their sights set on Russia next summer.
I expect Wales to have more off the ball and create a lot of chances at the Aviva Stadium, but I am looking for a solid defensive display from Ireland and possibly punish Wales on the counter attack or from a set-piece.
Wales are not a Germany or a Spain and Ireland can very much grab the win over Chris Coleman’s side tonight but they will need to attack from the off-set and stay focused for the full 90 minutes in order to maintain their unbeaten record.
A win for Ireland would definitely put them in pole position for that automatic qualifying spot in a bid to reach a first World Cup since 2002, but I think that Wales will snatch a draw against the Boys in Green.
Prediction: Ireland 1-1 Wales