Stakes high for opening Euro 16 encounter
Republic of Ireland cannot afford to slip up in Georgia
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill believes that qualification for 2016 European Championships will be a “dogfight”. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho.
Martin O’Neill may be happy but as he and his players continued their preparations for their opening qualifying game of the European Championship campaign in Tbilisi tomorrow a statistical analysis of Group D gives Ireland a mere one in five chance of taking a top-two spot in the group.
The Germans are dead certs you won’t be surprised to hear, according to the number crunchers at anorak central, infostrada, but Scotland, they feel, are best placed to join the World Cup winners in France and Poland are reckoned to be in with a better shout than us.
It’s not the sort of thing that the Ireland manager is likely to lie awake at night worrying about and as for his assistant, well, Roy Keane might have achieved a new personal best on the derision front had he been asked about it on Friday. Still, it is a gentle reminder that Ireland’s status as the second seeds counts for little as this group gets under way.
A phoney war, consisting of eight friendly matches, only two of which were won, could have been more encouraging but O’Neill seems entirely unconcerned, insisting that after what he clearly regards as a painfully extended pre-season of sorts, all that matters is that the campaign proper is finally about to begin. His team, he says, is ready.
“This is it,” he observes, suggesting a sense of relish, “this is competitive football. Every game, every minute of these games is very important for us. We’ve got to compete the whole way through.
Extra 10 per cent
After a fair bit of experimentation, Wednesday’s line-up against Oman certainly suggested that O’Neill is completely at ease over the selection for tomorrow’s game. He could, he acknowledges, have used the Oman game as a dry run for Tbilisi where the heat and tense atmosphere in a packed 50,000 capacity stadium will add to the challenge and Georgia should, at the very least, ask a few more questions of their visitors than Paul Le Guen’s side did this week.
The manager, though, has the air of a man who has known his best 11 for some time even if he entirely happy to leave us guessing as to whether Shay Given is to have his number-one goalkeeper status restored, Stephen Ward is to continue at left back or Darron Gibson is finally to displace Glenn Whelan in central midfield. No, seems just about the more likely answer in each instance just now but the manager’s replies when asked directly about these and other matters are so full of contradictions and qualifications that no-one but him can know for sure.
Stakes are high
As it is, Temur Ketsbaia is in charge of a reasonable team that includes some talented players and, in particular, a strong midfield. Spartak Moscow’s Jano Ananidze may be frustrating those who predicted big things for him for a couple of years back but the 21-year-old is technically very good and still improving. Team captain Jaba Kankava is accomplished and a strong leader while Genk’s Tornike Okriashvili is capable on occasion of producing something spectacular.
The five previous encounters between the two sides have all ended in victory for Ireland but only the home wins have been in any way convincing. In Tbilisi, the Irish did well to hold their nerve for a 2-1 win and after the game in neutral Mainz, finished the same way six years ago, there was definite sense that the FAI’s slightly cynical move to have the venue switched due to Russia’s active support for separatists fighting quite some distance from the capital, might just have made the difference.
If Ireland play the way they did against Italy at the start of the summer then it really should not make too much difference. In London that night there were signs of the confidence and composure that the new manager was supposed to bring, a sense that the players were starting to thrive under a man who saw in them possibilities where his predecessor saw first and foremost limitations.
O’Neill has compared the campaign to “a dogfight,” this week and in those the first bite can sometimes prove fatal.
An Irish win tomorrow won’t even go close to guaranteeing his team a top-two finish but a defeat would be a wound from which it may struggle to recover.