Thursday, 27 February 2014

Friends Reunited

It's a case of familiar faces, friends and relations for the Euro 2016 qualifiers as the draw pits us against Germany for the third time in the last five campaigns, reunites us with the country we made so many friends in as we tried to forget the football during Euro 2012 and sees us play our Celtic cousins for the first time since Gary Mackay's late winner for Scotland against Bulgaria sent us to our first major tournament in Euro '88. The group is certainly a good one for the trips it will throw up with the aforementioned away games sure to attract a great travelling crowd, as will an away game v Gibraltar due to be played in Portugal in September 2015 leaving only the away game in Georgia that kicks off the group as the lone journey of the 'planes, trains and automobiles' variety. But while it's good from that perspective with good crowds, craic and atmosphere guaranteed, from a qualifying perspective I was left a little deflated by the draw and while it could have been worse, it most certainly could have been a whole lot better.

Gary Mackay enters Irish soccer folklore

There are a number of reasons why I believe this, the first of which being the top seed.  While you always expect a difficult game against the highest ranked team in the group, there were a number of teams in that pot who I would have fancied us to have a right go at and potentially take points from.  The likes of Bosnia, Greece, Russia in particular or even England and Italy.  In fact, take Ronaldo out of the Portugal team and it's very average as well with a Swedish side that we weren't far off last campaign running them to the wire in the play offs.  The only 3 teams in advance that I didn't want from that pot were Germany, Spain and The Netherlands in that order.  So to get Germany was disappointing and the fact that we've played them so often since Steve Staunton's first competitive game as manager means that we miss out on the chance of a different away experience in the qualifiers. Realistically, you have to assume they'll steamroll the group and the fact that they should certainly have a top two place and with it qualification confirmed by the time we play them means they may have their eye off the ball but I don't really think this German team work that way. Picking up a point against them over the two games is probably the best we can hope for.

Most commentators agree that the group is most likely going to come down to a shoot about for 2nd place between ourselves, Poland and Scotland.  As far as 3rd and 4th seeds go I again think we could have done a lot better.  There really isn't much between the 3 sides.  While Poland can blow hot and cold, they have genuine class in the shape of Robert Lewandowski up front and further Champions League experience with Arsenal's Wojciech Szczęsny in goal and Lewandowski's Dortmund team mate Łukasz Piszczek at the back. Add in a number of players plying their trade in the Bundeseliga, currently the best league in Europe and there's clearly the potential to cause difficulty there.  The fact that their games against Germany would be similar for the players to our games against England means that there's always the chance that they'll raise their game for those ties and should they somehow pick up points that would give them a distinct advantage in this mini league.  We can also expect a huge away support in Dublin judging by the last 2 friendlies played at Lansdowne and it's imperative that our home support turn out in force for that game.

Polish fans standing up for the Boys in Green after our exit

Scotland's placing in the 4th pot is a bit of a misnomer due to the disastrous Craig Levein reign.  Since Gordon Strachan took over they have slowly turned things around and have recently started playing with more confidence and indeed did the double over a Croatia team that we struggled against in Euro 2012. There's not much between the squads with a mixture of mid level Premier league and good Championship players.  There's some decent Championship firepower in Jordan Rhodes and Ross McCormack, some trickery in Robert Snodgrass and they're further along the bounce and development that being under new management has given them.  There's not much between the managers either, they had similar domestic records at Celtic and while people may point to Martin O'Neill's UEFA Cup final run, they were only in that because they'd failed to get out of the Champions League group again, a feat never achieved under O'Neill whereas Strachan qualified out of the group twice in succession with a significantly reduced budget.   I think they'll be two tight games against the Scots and while they're winnable, I'd much sooner have had numerous other teams from that pot. Draws may well be the order of the day without a moment of magic like Mark Lawrenson's run in 1987.

Mark Lawrenson's finest moment in Green

By the time you get to the 5th pot, you'd expect that a relatively straightforward 6 points would be the order of the day.  Given that our most recent meeting with Georgia last summer resulted in a comfortable 4-0 win you'd be forgiven for thinking that should be the case in this campaign.  However, scratch the surface and that's not the case.  Having drawn Georgia in the World Cup 2010 qualifiers, the first competitive game of the Trapottoni era was scheduled for Tbilisi but due to recent Russian air strikes was moved to a neutral venue, Mainz in Germany.  This undoubtedly was advantageous to Ireland who duly picked up 3 points in a 2-1 win having conceded in stoppage time.  It's safe to say the Georgians weren't too impressed with the heavy FAI lobbying to get the game moved and there is still an undercurrent of bitterness there as a result. Adding to this is the fact that in the return leg it took a very soft penalty to draw us level late on before we grabbed a winner. Their record in Tbilisi is very solid for a 5th seed with a draw against France and Spain relying on an 86th minute winner from Roberto Saldado during the last campaign.  It's also safe to say that the Georgians will look forward to finally getting to play us at home and will feel they have a point to prove.  Again, although they're a team you'd expect us to beat, there were plenty of other teams within that pot that we've no history with and I'd have preferred to see us play.

Georgia 1 Ireland 2 when both teams played away

Making up the group are Gibraltar and although I'd expect them to have more of a British culture to their game than a Spanish one, they really shouldn't cause us any problems.  We're not talking about a Montenegro here who were only bottom seeds due to their lack of games in the past and have shot up the rankings since.  We're talking a San Marino or an Andorra and despite the feel good factor generated by their first game where they got a creditable 0-0 against Slovakia it would be up there with the infamous Lichtenstein draw under Big Jack were we to drop points in either game.

Now, I don't necessarily want to come across as totally doom and gloom about the draw.  Outside of Germany we should be able to beat any of the teams on a given day and I'd be hopeful of getting the second qualifying spot.  The danger is that we get into a situation similar to Brian Kerr's second campaign where ourselves, France, Israel and Switzerland traded off a huge number of draws which eventually left us 4th in the group after Thierry Henry's peach of a winner in Lansdowne.  Indeed, that group was so tight that had we held on to our 1-0 score through stoppage time away to Israel and not thrown away a 2-0 lead in the return leg we'd have topped the group despite the defeat to France.  Such slim margins are the difference between success and failure.  A series of draws like that would also leave us extremely unlikely to gain the automatic qualifying spot for the best 3rd place team.  Had we ended up in a group such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, Israel, Wales, Cyprus, Andorra or England, Ireland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino or Greece, Ireland, Romania, Finland, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands or even Spain, Ireland, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia, Luxembourg we could safely start booking our slots for the finals in France.  The irony is that we were worried that Romania would get to overtake us on the seedings after the World Cup play offs a few months ago and delighted when they didn't yet they wound up with an easier draw as third seeds than we did as second!

On the positive side, the qualifiers themselves should have a real buzz about them with ourselves, Scotland and Poland all having great travelling support and the relations between us should make for some great scenes around all the games, home and away. The Scotland game will most likely be at the only stadium in Britain where the Tricolour proudly flies and a visit to Paradise in Parkhead is always a pleasure. I'm certain a warm welcome will await us wherever the game is held in Poland given how the relationship between the 2 countries blossomed during Euro 2012.  The lack of a stadium in Gibraltar means 2015's holidays are sorted now with a week or so in Portugal including a trip to the game looking nice and a trip to Germany around Oktoberfest time is always worth doing!  Fingers crossed the final table will be as enjoyable to experience as the journey there!