O'Neill to face biggest test
Martin O'Neill is relishing the task of finally sending his Republic of Ireland team into battle in earnest for the first time.
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The Republic will play the eighth game of the the 62-year-old's reign to date on Wednesday evening, a friendly against Oman in Dublin, before he takes charge of his first competitive fixture, Sunday's opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia in Tbilisi.
O'Neill has had to wait 10 months for the meaningful matches to come around, but that has simply served to whet his appetite.
He said: "It's been a long time. It's something I've never been used to, to play a competitive game how many months, eight or nine after you joined up in November last year?
"Any job you have gone to at club level if you were only starting at pre-season, other than that you would be stepping into job and playing a competitive game within a couple of days.
"This is the first competitive game and we want to start as strongly as we possibly can, try to get some points on the board if it's at all possible, in a group that's going to be tight.
"I have said this before: the group is going to be very, very tight and I think four sides will be vying for that position."
O'Neill will use the Oman game to convince himself of a series of outstanding issues ahead of the trip to Georgia, principally the fitness of midfielders Darron Gibson and James McClean as they recover from long-term injuries.
Shay Given, who has returned to the fold at 38, could win a 126th senior cap with he and Rob Elliot likely to share the goalkeeping duties, while Gibson will start after 10 months on the sidelines with a cruciate ligament injury.
Asked if his team for Sunday is already picked in his head, O'Neill said: "I'd like to see how Darron performs, I'd like to see the fitness levels of a couple - James McClean, of course, hasn't played much.
"That's very much a case of a day-by-day thing. He has trained with us the last few days - he hasn't had any football since he had an injury a way back the 10th or 12th of July.
"Wigan are obviously concerned about him going in. We will see how (he) is today - he hasn't had much contact football. Again, those are the sort of things that we face, but we'll see how it goes."
However, while there may be still places up for grabs, O'Neill acknowledges that the bulk of his team is selected, and that those men who will be involved at the weekend, but not necessarily against the Omanis, are already focussing on what is required in Tbilisi.
He said: "This friendly game has come up at this moment to get a little bit of preparation in, but those boys who will not start the game, but who will be pretty well-assured of playing on Sunday, are already thinking about it.
"They are into it. We are into it, we are trying to get ready. It's a long road ahead, but it's glorious place to end and that's where we want to go, we want to try to get there."
O'Neill and assistant Roy Keane have put the players through their paces in Malahide this week with the former Manchester United man in particular in ebullient mood.
Keane, who is combining his role with a similar position at Aston Villa, raised smiles in England when a water bottle he had thrown in frustration hit club boss Paul Lambert, although O'Neill has - so far - been spared a similar fate.
The Ireland boss said with a smile: "He's growing that beard at this moment and he looks pretty fearsome."