Saturday 1 November 2014

Difficult draw just focuses the mind – O'Neill

Ireland boss keen to get started and predicts campaign will go to the wire

Daniel McDonnell in Nice

Published 24/02/2014 | 02:30

Former soccer player Dino Zoff of Italy holds the slip showing "Republic of Ireland" during the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying draw in Nice, February 23, 2014. The UEFA Euro will be held in France from June 10 through July 10 2016.         REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier (FRANCE - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)
Dino Zoff of Italy holds the slip showing "Republic of Ireland" during the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying draw
FAI Chief Executive John Delaney, Republic of Ireland coach Martin O'Neill and Republic of Ireland assistant coach Roy Keane arrive at Palais des Congrès Acropolis, Nice, France, for the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying draw. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

IF match day is billed as the occasion where the time for talking is over, then the aftermath of an international football qualifying draw is simply just the time for talking.

Generally, it is a day where hope springs eternal, where anything is possible. However, the FAI delegation which left the Cote d'Azur last night gave the impression that they had perhaps expected to leave France feeling a little more optimistic.

The irony of the cast of characters in Group D is that it brings together Ireland and Scotland, two associations that dropped the idea into UEFA's head that turning Euro 2016 into a 24-team affair was a good idea. Now they will fight it out in a group where the presence of Germany means that, in reality, they are aiming for one other automatic spot along with Poland with the cushion of a play-off for the third-place finisher.

"It's a pretty tough group," said Martin O'Neill, speaking before the new UEFA system laid out the order of fixtures which gives Ireland three hard away trips – to Georgia, Germany and Scotland – before the end of this year.

"When you consider that we got Georgia in Pot 5, they're probably as strong a team from that pot as you could have got. But I'm genuinely excited by it. This focuses the mind."

Certainly, while the top nations worry about the dilution of the quality and face up to a campaign that could be boring for them and a turn-off for consumers, Ireland anticipate a battle royale.

Unusually, the second September of the road to the Euros, which tends to be crunch time, throws up a relatively straightforward double-header in the form of Gibraltar away and Georgia in the Aviva.

That demonstrates the intensity of the six games beforehand; they will essentially tee up the script for the concluding pair of games in Dublin against the Germans and another voyage to Poland. One positive aspect of the format is that the top seeds should already have booked their ticket when Dublin comes around.

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"I rate them very highly indeed," says O'Neill, who will travel to watch Germany in Brazil this summer and rates them as one of the favourites to win the competition. "They have good players and are playing with a bit of verve. They have the old Germany efficiency, but a lot of flair as well.

"They are the stand-out team and expected to go and sweep all before them. But at home, if it we give a really proper approach, there is no reason why we can't give them a game. Those might be famous last words."

With Irish and Polish football history overlapping again, there's no unknown factor to the identity of the third seeds. O'Neill reads nothing into the November friendly with the Poles and ranks them as a strong force.

Indeed, while Ireland, Poland and Scotland all finished fourth in their World Cup group, the Irish boss pointed out that the team Adam Nawalka inherited were a few missed chances away from toppling England at Wembley in October and barging into the play-off picture.

Scotland, on the other hand, were out of the picture early but took six points from Croatia when Gordon Strachan assumed control.

"They are improving rapidly under Gordon," said O'Neill, who denied that he recommended Strachan as his successor at Celtic, although he did meet Dermot Desmond with the Scottish supremo.

"He's galvanising them at the moment, he's got a good spirit going and, more than that, they have a few who can play a bit. Considering they are down in Pot 4, they'll be happy enough with the way things are going. If they've got everyone fit and ready to go, a lot of them are playing big-time football."

Georgia only scored three goals in World Cup qualifying, but the caveat is that they were part of a five-team group without a minnow and including Spain and France.

They drew with Les Bleus in Tbilisi, while the World and European champions escaped with three points courtesy of an 86th-minute winner from Roberto Soldado. The opening qualifier, a Sunday affair in September that introduces Ireland to a campaign where matches can take place from Thursday to Tuesday, will present O'Neill with a very difficult assignment.

By contrast, the presence of Gibraltar adds a touch of novelty value. "Sounds like a great trip, doesn't it?" laughed O'Neill.

The newest member of the UEFA are awaiting official permission from the hierarchy to play their home games in Faro, Portugal, but their unfeasibly optimistic manager Allen Bula doesn't expect it to be a relaxing trip for visitors.

Gibraltar don't have an official world ranking yet, but Bula thinks they could make history. "I've said from day one that we haven't just come here to play," he asserted, mastering the bullish tone of these gatherings.

"I've come to a tournament and that tournament is Euro 2016. What I said before is that I want to get to the play-offs and that hasn't changed. I know it's a tougher group (than I expected) but I'm taking that into account now and the target now is to get through."

At the other end of the scale, German coach Joachim Loew was naturally bullish. "We take it like it is," he stressed.

"It's difficult. Poland, Ireland and Scotland – I know what's going on there and we have to play these matches. Of course, Germany is the favourite in this group, and we want to win this group. As usual, we say that before a group starts."

The customary Irish lingo before the start of a qualifying campaign is that a play-off would be a respectable result. An expanded tournament has moved the goalposts, but they are in a contest where at least one team with genuine qualification ambitions will miss out completely.

"This will go down to the wire," said the 61-year-old. History would suggest that prediction is accurate.

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