Germany’s rivals predict a four-way scrap for second qualifying spot
Republic of Ireland, Poland, Georgia and Scotland all in the shake-up says Scotland boss Gordon Strachan
Toni Kroos of Germany is challenged by Marc Wilson of the Republic or Ireland during the World Cup qualifier at the Rheinenergy Stadium in Cologne last year. Photo: Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images
As some of the rest of the group’s participants eyed each a little nervously in Nice yesterday, Joachim Löw, politely reminded us that he has bigger fish to fry.
“Until now I wasn’t really focusing on Ireland or the manager,” said the Germany coach when asked whether Martin O’Neill could help to ensure that Ireland make more of a fist of things against his side than his predecessor had.
“I knew that they had changed manager after the last game and I’m sure that he will help them because he knows them very well but for me it’s Brazil that is in my mind. Later on I will think more about Ireland and their manager.”
The 54-year-old seemed more taken with Poland really on the basis that they have big -name Bundesliga based players like Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek but he was generous enough about Ireland subsequently even if the old adage about damning with faint praise sprang to mind.
“We were a little bit lucky in Ireland because we scored goals at important moments,” he observed, “and then Ireland were a little bit disappointed. But Ireland is a strong team...well organised normally, strong and dynamic. They have power and they play for the country always and with their heart and so they are always difficult to play.”
Still, he didn’t get too carried away, adding somewhat perfunctorily: “Of course Germany is the favourite and we want to win this group.”
Gordon Strachan’s take on things was much the same as O’Neill’s with the former Scotland international seeing things as a four-way tussle for second place.
“I think it’s exciting for a lot of reasons. First of all, you have Germany who are one of the best teams in the world and then you have Gibraltar who are new to the competition.
“But between that you have four teams, any one of which is capable of finishing in second place. People might think it will be between ourselves, Poland and the Republic of Ireland but Georgia will be in the mix as well. I think there are four teams who will be gunning for second place.
“It could have been easier,” he said. “There were other groups that I quite liked the look of but then someone else would join it and suddenly it didn’t look like such a great idea now. So the group we have ended up with is fine. I have walked out of that hall feeling that we have a chance of straight qualification and that’s a good thing.”
Gibraltar boss Allen Bula is determined that his side is aiming for the play-off spot. This wasn’t something that any of his counterparts seemed to have seen coming with most venturing no further than polite or sincere nods in the direction of the group’s fifth seeds, Georgia.
Bula, however, was adamant.
“I said before, that I want to get to the play-offs and that hasn’t changed,” he said.
“I know it’s a tougher group (than I expected) but I’m taking that into account now and the target is still to get through and qualify for the play-offs. It’s a great draw, a very tough group but we’re over the moon.”
The Gibraltarians, who have done absolutely nothing previously to suggest that they can rise to anything like those lofty heights, are currently building a stadium that will allow them to host games at home but that won’t be ready for another two years and so, for this campaign, they will have to host games in Faro at the stadium built for the Euro 2004 Championship and not used too much since.
The venue is a three-and-a half hour drive from Gibraltar and the federation’s chief executive said he would expect “a couple of thousand” fans to make the journey. When it was put to him that Ireland might bring rather more than that to one of the nation’s favourite holiday destinations – a possibility that was distinctly enhanced by the early September timing of the game - Bula said that that was fine with them.
“Yeah, definitely, that’s the way we see,” he said. “If we’re going to fill a 30,000 seat stadium (which would just about take the entire population of Gibraltar) in Portugal then it’s going to be mainly with Irish fans or Scottish fans but we don’t see that as a problem.”
Neither, one suspects, will the Irish.