Preview: Italian job in Fulham can halt Ireland's rankings slide

Preview: Italian job in Fulham can halt Ireland's rankings slide

Ireland v Italy, Saturday, Fulham, 7.45pm 

FOR the sixth time in as many years, Ireland arrive in London for a friendly international which has as much appeal as a chat with Joey Barton.

Yes the opposition are from good stock and yes the Craven Cottage venue retains a certain appeal.

But friendly internationals don’t.

When games have nothing at stake you cannot get excited by them. Yet, perhaps Martin O’Neill should.

After losing 1-2 to Turkey on Sunday, following on from the defeat in March to Serbia, Ireland’s slide down the world rankings is gathering pace.

Now while these rankings are as accurate as a typical Carlton Palmer pass, they retain an unjustified importance simply because they form the basis of FIFA’s seeding criteria for the 2018 World Cup.

In other words — if we beat Italy, Costa Rica and Portugal in our next three games then we could be on our way to the second pot of seeds.

If we lose we will almost certainly be fourth seeds and our chances for qualifying for Russia will be desperately affected.

“At this stage, the seedings are not my concern,” said O’Neill.

“My concern is readying the team for September and while I could have put together a programme of matches that would have seen us play easier opposition, I had to ask, ‘what would I or the players learn?’

“We want to move the team forward and the harder the opposition, the quicker the education process.”

Saturday’s opposition will clearly be tough, certainly if the memory of what they achieved in Poland during the Euros is anything to go by.

Finalists then, they have since finished third in the Confederations Cup and return to Brazil this summer with genuine title hopes, although a place in the quarters or semis seems likelier.

To Italy, this game with Ireland is considered little more than a dress rehearsal for their Group D game against England in Manaus. For O’Neill, it is the opportunity to put down a marker. After going three games without a win, it would be no harm if he managed that.