1. Keiren Westwood
IN CONTRAST WITH his time at Sunderland where he invariably preferred Simon Mignolet to Westwood, Martin O’Neill placed faith in the 29-year-old against Latvia on Friday night at the expense of David Forde. Yet while it would be premature to suggest O’Neill has definitively chosen the Black Cats stopper as his number one goalkeeper, his inclusion in a strong starting lineup last week was certainly a good sign. However, despite turning 34 in a month’s time (he’s older than Robbie Keane), Forde has his admirers and has vowed to fight for his place in the team, so Westwood will have to justify his starting spot with a series of solid performances — particularly if he continues to be left on the bench at Sunderland, as he was in their recent 1-0 victory over Manchester City.
2. Glenn Whelan
Perhaps the player to take the most flak in the final days of Giovanni Trapattoni’s management, with Eamon Dunphy among his most vocal critics, a fit and in-form Whelan — despite what the dissenters say — surely has a role to play within the squad. He is a Premier League holding midfielder, which are in short supply among this contingent, especially with Darron Gibson having suffered a long-term injury. Moreover, probably because he was a mainstay in the team throughout the Trapattoni regime, it’s easy to forget that he’s still relatively young and should be coming towards the peak of his career at 29. He performed solidly on Friday night, and will have to continue to do so at the very least if he wants to be a regular under O’Neill, with both James McCarthy and a fit Gibson having strong claims for the central midfield berth.
3. Shane Long
It is no stretch to suggest Shane Long’s form has coincided with the Irish manager’s performances to date. As Ireland gradually became more successful under Trapattoni, he grew in confidence and was clearly on his way to becoming a more-than-decent Premier League player. Nevertheless, as the Trap era came to an end in a slow and painful fashion (in the form of the entire 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign), Long looked increasingly short on confidence. His Joe Hart-esque sudden, disconcerting loss of form appeared to reach its zenith recently, with West Brom unsuccessfully attempting to offload him to Hull and the striker failing to feature in either of Ireland’s games under Noel King.
However, he appears to have rediscovered his confidence both at club level and on the international scene of late, in conjunction with the optimism prompted by O’Neill and Keane’s appointment. Consequently, he scored and played in the majority of West Brom’s recent impressive 2-2 draw away to Chelsea, while he also registered a well-taken third goal against Latvia on Friday night, suggesting he is once again a force to be reckoned with up front. Long may it continue.
4. Wes Hoolahan
The Norwich star went some towards justifying the hype that often surrounds him with a tidy performance against Latvia, marked by his customary footballing ingenuity. And the primary creative onus in midfield looks set to rest on his shoulders again against Poland, with the other obvious contender for the number 10 role, Andy Reid, ruled out through injury. Then again, that’s assuming O’Neill once more neglects to play two up front, which is hardly an inconceivable scenario, with both Robbie Keane and Shane Long making an impact against the Latvians. Of greatest concern to the 61-year-old coach, though, will be Hoolahan’s lack of first-team action at Norwich — a factor that may force the manager into playing a Trap-style 4-4-2 in future at his expense. Hence, the ex-Shels star will perhaps be desperate to prove a point to Chris Hughton, even more so than O’Neill, against Poland.
5. Sean St Ledger
The 28-year-old Leicester centre-back will have been disappointed not to feature against Latvia, particularly with two of his main rivals for a place in the side — Ciaran Clark and Richard Dunne — both unavailable. Instead, both he and Reading defender Alex Pearce were snubbed in favour of Marc Wilson, who normally operates at left-back or midfield with Stoke. With so many players seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order, St Ledger — who was often a regular starter under Trap — will know he needs a strong performance if he is to continue to remain a significant part of O’Neill’s plans in the future.