Ken Early: Belgrade battle will be tougher than many expect
Serbia know exactly what to expect from Ireland and what is an ageing lineup
Ireland’s coach Martin O’Neill during the Euro 2016 match against France at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium near Lyon in June. The time and expense involved in travelling to Russia means it’s doubtful whether the tournament will attract international fans in numbers comparable to those that went to France. Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
When Branislav Ivanovic was asked to describe the challenge he expects from Ireland tonight in Belgrade, he hit on some familiar themes.
“They are aggressive and they make up for any faults that the team might have by giving their all every second,” Ivanovic says.
Every opponent describes Ireland in the same way: fighting spirit, physical, strong in the air, 100 per cent commitment. The international image of the Irish team was established during the Jack Charlton era and it has never really changed.
Even in the years when when the Irish team was built around smaller, skilful players like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff every opponent still claimed to be anticipating muck and bullets and a frenzied aerial onslaught.
But things have moved on and maybe the world’s outdated idea of what Ireland are all about is coming back into date.
Old-school valuesIreland’s progress to the second round at Euro 2016 happened after Martin O’Neill turned to some old-school values. After Belgium swatted Ireland aside O’Neill decided he needed more power in the line-up, and Daryl Murphy, Shane Duffy and James McClean were picked for the matches against Italy and France.
Ireland v Italy had more fouls than any other match in the group stage and Ireland had some lenient refereeing from Ovidiu Hategan to thank for the fact that they picked up only two yellow cards.
So vigorous was Ireland’s performance that night in Lille that it was a surprise to discover, at the end of the group stage, that Martin O’Neill’s side had covered less distance over their three matches than any other team in the competition except Albania.
Ireland averaged just under 103km per match – fully 10km per match less than the side who covered the most ground, Italy. It should be noted that Italy topped the charts for the group stage despite running only 104km against Ireland, a huge drop-off from the nearly 120km they ran in their opening match against Belgium.
Maybe Ireland succeeded in making Italy play their kind of game, or maybe the fact that Italy had already qualified affected their motivation.
But it’s clear that Ireland’s physical output, even on the grand stage tournament finals, fell well short of the levels now expected in leagues such as the Premier League and Bundesliga, where even average teams will cover 110km per game and high-pressing teams such as Spurs or Bayer Leverkusen routinely run more than 116km.
One obvious reason why Ireland run less is that unlike Spurs and Leverkusen, they don’t go hunting the ball in the other team’s half. But it might also have something to do with the fact that Ireland these days has one of the oldest teams in international football.
The team had lots of days off during the Euros as O’Neill prioritised freshness over further training. But the benefits were not apparent in the second half against France, when Ireland ran out of energy. It’s true that France had three extra days of rest before that match, but Ireland had three full days to recover after beating Italy, which is usually considered adequate recovery time. Maybe a team with Ireland’s age profile needs a little more time than that.
Paramilitary-style hooligansOf the players who are in the picture to start against Serbia, Jon Walters, Daryl Murphy, Wes Hoolahan, Glenn Whelan, Stephen Ward, Richard Keogh and John O’Shea are all over 30 and only Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are under 25. James McClean has never quite managed to nail down a consistent starting place in the team, and there are times when he fails to demonstrate the consistency of technique you expect of an international footballer, but when you look at the options in aggregate, you wonder if Ireland can afford to do without the energy he brings.
The prize on offer in this qualification group is the chance to be part of one of the strangest World Cups in recent times. The time and expense involved in travelling to Russia means it’s doubtful whether the tournament will attract international fans in numbers comparable to those that went to France. Even those fans who are willing to absorb the cost might be put off by the prospect of running into some of the paramilitary-style hooligans who ran riot in Marseille during the Euros.
On the other hand, there are some fascinating subplots. Russia’s recent Winter Olympics was the most expensive Olympiad in history. How will they ramp up the production values of FIFA’s tournament? Will there be further developments in the doping scandal that decimated Russian participation at the Rio Olympics? And having fielded arguably the most inept side at Euro 2016, what steps will the Russians take to avoid humiliation in their own World Cup?
Belgrade is the first stop on the long road to the East. It’s just as well this match comes early in the qualification, when Ireland’s players will be at their freshest. A grim nil-all draw would be a terrific result.