Soccer Angles: Champions League shows quality in Bosnian ranks
Ireland may opt for policy of containment in first leg play-off against Balkan outfit
Edin Dzeko’s loan transfer to Roma from Manchester City has not gone well in terms of goals and injuries but, ominously for Ireland, the striker is now back amongst the goals. Photograph: EPA/Ettore Ferrari
Pjanic on the streets of Dublin. However corny, there’s a chance that headline could be written soon. Miralem Pjanic plays for Bosnia-Herzegovina and AS Roma and, at least statistically, is the best taker of free-kicks in Serie A.
We are familiarising ourselves with Balkan surnames in a countdown to a play-off that will dictate whether the Republic of Ireland are in France next summer or at home watching on TV.
There might be more at stake than that, including, possibly, the FAI futures of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.
Suddenly boys in green have started taking keen interest in the likes of Dinamo Zagreb, Hertha Berlin and Roma.
These are three of the clubs sprinkled across Europe from where Bosnia-Herzegovina (BIH to Fifa) collect their players on international weeks.
The names of Stoke City and Derby County are prominent in the brackets after the 39 players initially selected by O’Neill; the Bosnian manager of a year, Mehmed Bazdarevic, has a more eclectic mix.
It can be added that O’Neill would like to be able to call on players currently performing in the Champions League for clubs such as Chelsea and Roma. In that sense, on paper, Bazdarevic has the quality ingredient of spice that O’Neill lacks.
For differing reasons, therefore, both managers will surely have been drawn to the same midweek match: Roma versus Bayer Leverkusen.
Up front for Roma was Edin Dzeko and in midfield was Pjanic. Dzeko scored Roma’s second, Pjanic scored their winner. You can imagine Bazdarevic nodded his approval as O’Neill took stock.
Of the 28-man party Bazdarevic named for the play-off, Dzeko and Pjanic were two of five who featured in the Champions League this week. No one in O’Neill’s squad did that.
Another scorer was 20-year-old Armin Hodzic, who headed in for Dinamo Zagreb at Olympiakos. As a young boy Hodzic was signed by Liverpool but he did not breakthrough. He is still young and is likely to be a substitute against Ireland, but he looks a coming player.
Marin Anicic is another who might not be named in the Bosnian starting XI but he played for the Kazakh side FK Astana against Atlético Madrid on Tuesday. Anicic played left-sided centre back against an Atlético forward line of Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann. It finished 0-0.
Anicic and Hodzic were squad men for Bazdarevic; Pjanic appeared in all 10 Euro qualifiers, Dzeko in seven.
This quartet of Champions League performers will give both managers ideas, as will the display of Asimir Begovic at Stamford Bridge.
Begovic had not, until Wednesday, been engulfed in the defensive flakiness undermining Chelsea’s season but his flap at a Dynamo Kiev cross led to an equaliser and there were other moments when Begovic – 28 – looked unlike someone who’s been playing first-team football for a decade.
Begovic goes back to his former club Stoke on Saturday, 10 days after conceding a goal there in the League Cup to Jon Walters. Walters, Glenn Whelan and, if he plays, Marc Wilson, will gain an up-close assessment of Begovic’s confidence (though Walters of course is suspended for the play-off first leg). Containment might be an Irish approach in Bosnia.
Stoke-Chelsea is a match O’Neill may attend, whereas Bazdarevic could stick with Roma. They face Lazio in the Rome derby and he would happily see Dzeko score again. Wednesday’s goal was the Manchester City player’s first in two months.
Last Saturday Bazdarevic was in Milan to see Roma at Inter. Roma lost and Dzeko did not score but Bazdarevic was reassured. The loan transfer from City has not gone well for Dzeko in terms of goals and injuries but Bazdarevic was emphatic afterwards saying: “Dzeko was injured and is now getting back into shape.
“He feels good again and from the movements and the chances he created, I think we can say he’s rediscovering his best form. I’m not worried about him, because I know that when he loosens up another 10 goals will arrive in quick succession.”
Only 10? Sure enough, one came against Leverkusen. Another against Lazio would have Dzeko purring. There is always the chance of a strain in such a derby, though, but there is no chance of Pjanic picking up a niggle. He’s suspended.
Over in Berlin, Vedad Ibisevic will also be resting pre-play-off. He too is suspended.
It means Pjanic and Ibisevic will be fresh for next Friday. They may lack the European profile of Dzeko and the prominence of Begovic, but these are core BIH players.
If, in coming third behind Belgium and Wales in their qualifying group, Bosnia appear moderate opposition, it should be recalled that 16 months ago they were facing Argentina at the World Cup.
Lionel Messi’s goal beat them but Ibisevic scored his country’s first at a World Cup. Pjanic started their three games in Brazil. He then missed a penalty in the opening qualifier for France, against Cyprus.
It led to a 2-1 home defeat and after four games Bosnia, World Cup players four months earlier, had four points. Out went manager Safet Susic and in came Bazdarevic. They have been on the upswing since and won their last home game 2-0 against Wales.
Ibisevic scored again. He and others in the squad have harrowing stories of the Balkan war in the 1990s and the football team has given the newly independent country something to cling to.
Their mood is improved. O’Neill and his team will do well to leave with a draw next Friday. Then Pjanic goes to Dublin.