Edin Dzeko believes playing in Zenica is a lift for home side

Bosnia and Herzegovina coach Mehmed Bazdarevic says his side are not afraid of Ireland

"It gives us even more power and we love this place," explains Edin Dzeko of Zenica, the low-lit unglamorous steel town which has become the beating heart of Bosnia's late push for a first ever European Championship qualification.

All countries have their football gods and Dzeko’s shining international reputation places expectation squarely on his shoulders. Seven goals during Bosnia and Herzegovina’s faltering progress through Group B and an ominous return to form with AS Roma places him as the central threat to Martin O’Neill’s defensive strategy.

In Zenica, which is a 40-mile trek through a busy, mountainous road, Dzeko explained why here, rather than Sarajevo, has become home and made light of his limited influence through the qualifying campaign.

‘At home’

“We won so many games here and hopefully we can do more tomorrow. I don’t think you have been missing me because of the results. In the last two matches we showed we can play even without important players. We are at home and we are in Zenica – and I really love to say that: we are at home here – and I hope we are going to win.”

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The anticipation in Dzeko’s voice hinted at the kind of reception awaits O’Neill’s team tonight. The Bilino Polje remains “of” the 1970s in architecture and aura and acquired its reputation as a graveyard for visiting international teams during the decade after 1995, when Bosnian society attempted to come to terms with the bitter internal conflict. The national team enjoyed a 15-match unbeaten run in the stadium and of the 34 international matches the Bilino Polje has hosted, visiting teams left victorious on just seven occasions.

The Republic of Ireland’s startling 1-0 win over Germany was held up by both Dzeko and Bosnia and Herzegovina coach Mehmed Bazdarevic as inarguable proof of their ability and versatility and he dismissed the lengthy injury list O’Neill carries around in his pocket.

“We are not going to change anything about our strategy,” Bazdarevic vowed. “Goalkeepers can be replaced. We are not going to change and after the training tonight we will have more details and see how they are going to proceed. We are not afraid of them. They are a very good team and they have shown this in qualification. But we are ready and we are going to do our best. We respect their expertise and are going to confront them.”

The slender, energetic Bazdarevic has had a life in football which spans the region’s troubled transition from post-war Yugoslavia to Bosnia. He played in Euro ’84 but missed what was Yugoslavia’s last tournament when he was suspended for spitting at a linesman and missed Italia ’90. Although Yugoslavia did qualify for Euro ’92, they were expelled from the tournament as the country began to fold and turn in on itself.

His affect on Bosnia and Herzegovina since his appointment last December has been central to the late string of results which saw them finish third behind Belgium and Wales.

Dzeko's five seasons with Manchester City leaves him acquainted with several of the Irish squad even if John O'Shea, the player whom he can probably summon most vividly, will miss tomorrow night through suspension.

‘100 per cent’

“I can say that yes, I do know almost all of the players. We know that the Premier League is the best league. What makes them special is their coherence. They play together and they never give up and they give it 100 per cent.

“They have individual quality and they are good players and even if they are missing some players I know you have a good team. Maybe some of the most important players are not playing in the first game so it is a big problem for your guys but you have other players who can jump in. I think these will be interesting games. So I think it is 50-50. I don’t think it matters that some of our players are playing Champions League because some of the Irish players have experience in big games as well.”

Sarajevo’s past is represented in such visible symbols: the Holiday Inn on the main boulevard is one of the many buildings still scarred with shrapnel and bullet damage and became one of the most recognisable images in the news footage of the three-year conflict while the signs for the Winter Olympics suggest an event that occurred more recently than 30 years ago.

The city is doing little to disguise that this match – and qualification – would be a huge moment for the region. All is focussed on these 90 minutes, the return match in Dublin on Monday evening seemed a remote concern.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times