Ireland’s World Cup bid off to a challenging start, says O’Neill
Three of first four matches away from home, two against key rivals Serbia and Austria
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland must get through another difficult start to a qualifying campaign if they are to make it to Russia in 2018. Three of Martin O’Neill’s four opening World Cup games towards the tail-end of next year are to be played away, two of them against key group rivals Serbia and Austria.
Qualifying will get under way against the Serbs, almost certainly in Belgrade, on September 5th, after which O’Neill and Co will have a month to prepare for their first double header of the campaign, against Georgia at home and then Moldova away.
The 2017 portion of the programme concludes in Austria, where Ireland’s hopes of making it to Brazil were dealt a major blow a couple of years ago.
“The fixtures we’ve been given are challenging, with three of the first four matches away from home, similar to the group we are in at the moment,” said O’Neill after the fixture list was finalised on Sunday. “But we have to play everybody at some stage so let’s look forward to it when the time comes.”
National associations no longer have any influence over the setting of fixtures, which used to be a matter for negotiation, sometimes prolonged and tough, as each side tried to gain a competitive advantage or maximise revenue.
The scheduling of some of the games within Uefa’s generally week-long programmes of games is not great from a supporter’s point of view, either; in a couple of cases, both the opening and closing games, for instance, are to be played on a Monday evening.
Towards the end of the campaign, the team faces two challenging double headers, both of which involve key games against major qualification rivals that take place immediately after encounters with the group’s less formidable sides.
In September 2017, Ireland must take on Serbia at home just three days after playing in Georgia. A month later they will face Moldova before heading to Wales for their final game of the campaign, against the group’s top seeds.
As the groups were drawn starting with the weakest sides, the inclusion of Moldova, whose results have been erratic but occasionally impressive, and Serbia suggested Group D would be particularly daunting. But, as O’Neill said afterwards, things improved somewhat from an Irish perspective. “When Serbia came in from Pot 3, you’re fearing the worst, but then Austria, although they’re going very well at this minute, and Wales, who’ve propelled themselves from fifth seeds the last time around to top seeds . . . At the end of it all, while it’s a draw where I think the teams will take points off each other, I’m happy enough to be in it.”
It remains a challenging group, though, with Austria, like Wales, doing exceptionally well in their Euro2016 campaign and Serbia having the players to bounce back from their inexplicable slump.
Despite being third seeds, Northern Ireland’s group looks no easier with Germany, the Czech Republic and Norway all included, while England and Scotland will face each other in Group F.
O’Neill declined to comment on whether he would still be in charge of the team for the campaign, but he looks set to be. He acknowledged he is not sure the same can be said for some of his senior players. “Like everything else,” he said, “by the time it gets underway again, there’s another year gone. Some players that are 33, they might say they’re a year older, and I think, again, it’s hopefully part of my job to see if we can get players a bit younger into the squad who are capable of coping at that level; not only coping at it but relishing the challenge of it.”
He also confirmed he will be sitting down with James McClean before the squad next gets together to talk about the latest controversy in which the player has become embroiled: his refusal to fully respect the British national anthem before games. “I’ll meet him in next couple of weeks and have a wee chat there, a wee chat,” he said. “I like James a lot. I like him as a player and as a person. I’ll have a few words, not in a paternal manner, you understand, but as coach to a player.”