Survival the aim as Ireland enter hostile territory
Published 13/11/2015 | 02:30
It is fitting that the road to Stadion Bilino Polje is surrounded by mountainous terrain. Historically, the tension of a qualification play-off tends to leave Irish football fans feeling like they are teetering on the edge of a cliff.
The city of Zenica, located some 70km north of Sarajevo, has never had any reason to figure on the Irish consciousness until now. Chances are this will be a one-time-only visit. But, while the place itself is unlikely to leave much of an impression on the travelling party, the name will stand for something when this Euro 2016 decider is over.
This is Ireland's eighth play-off, and the other locations are etched in the memory. The slightest mention recalls the emotions. Paris, Anfield, Brussels and Bursa are synonymous with pain. Tehran and Tallinn are a by-word for jubilation.
What every play-off shares in common is that Ireland's fate was determined on foreign soil. That was supposed to change four years ago when, for the first time, the draw decreed that the second leg would take place in Dublin. The destruction of Estonia on their own turf in the first leg removed any suspense from the decider.
After a preparation interrupted by uncertainty over the availability of key players, you sense that Martin O'Neill would be quite happy if the crucial moments were reserved for the Aviva Stadium.
If a killer blow is to be struck this evening, then the percentage call is that it will come from the hosts considering that their marquee figures are all present and correct and believe that an idiosyncratic stadium gives them strength. "We love this place," said Edin Dzeko, when pressed on the compact facility that is capable of generating a unique atmosphere with just 12,000 fans present. The prospect of a first appearance at a European Championships should ensure that it is delivered.
O'Neill's squad had a first look at the stage last night, although they didn't train for too long. The manager had spoken this week about the need for training to be organisational rather than overly physical and the loss of David Meyler on Wednesday after an innocuous collision was a further setback.
The Hull midfielder had reported for duty in good form and, much as it was difficult to see him starting either game, his energy off the bench did help when the effort in the first 70 minutes against Germany had taken its toll. O'Neill generally becomes more intense as match-day draws closer and media commitments surface as an unnecessary distraction. He was irritated in his pre-match conference in a claustrophobic press room when a couple of locals chattered away at the back as he was speaking. "They'll finish at some stage or other," he sighed, after their rudeness forced him to lose his train of thought.
After being rolled out to offer his views on Monday, Wednesday and then upon arrival in Bosnia, one could forgive the Derryman for believing there is little else that can be said. At this point, he is sick of labouring on the absentees, perhaps fearing that talking at length about how Ireland could struggle without John O'Shea, Jon Walters and Shane Long might somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"In two weeks' time, nobody even remembers who is injured or not injured," he asserted, recognising that the entry on his CV will have no room for an asterisk. "Of course in an ideal world, it would be great to have everyone available, that gives you your best chance. We have to compete strongly and we will have to make some adjustments because we are missing players who would have had a very good opportunity to at least start the game.
"But we've had in our mind some things that we think can work and there will be adjustments. Hopefully not in the attitude to the game but, in personnel maybe and style."
The loss of Walters is a particular blow given how he can wear many hats in this kind of encounter. He was immense against Germany, merging making a nuisance of himself in the opposite half with tracking back to cover both full-backs at various stages.
O'Neill likes to have a physical presence in his side and that's why Daryl Murphy, who also started against the world champions before making way for match-winner Long, should expect to come into the frame.
The Ipswich attacker can run the channels and harass opposition defenders too. The only other strikers that have made the trip are Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle, and the former might have to settle for a reduced role across the 180 minutes.
Predictably enough, O'Neill was asked about Wes Hoolahan's ability to feature in both jousts and his answer was non-committal. "We have to try and utilise our players including
Wes," he stated.
"We have two very important matches for us as a nation and, while you don't want to start pre-empting things that might not materialise, you have to take some things into consideration during the course of the two games."
It is hard, however, to see how Ireland can hope to keep the ball and create the away goal they require without Hoolahan's attributes. There is a strong chance that Robbie Brady will be deployed further up the park too, while the wild-card options for a role at some stage are Aiden McGeady and Harry Arter. The latter was given a special mention by O'Neill, albeit with the caveat that his pre-match words are not necessarily a pointer to what might be sprung from the pack.
Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick have played together before and they will have to be disciplined in a department where Bosnia are capable of punishing mistakes.
Restricting opportunities for set-piece specialist Miralem Pjanic is a must, while Deportivo's Haris Medunjanin is also capable of ghosting forward from deep and threatening; he notched the brace in Cyprus last month that gave boss Mehmed Bazdarevic a fifth win from six competitive games in the hot-seat and a play-off spot.
Stephen Ward may get the nod ahead of Marc Wilson at left full with Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh contenders to shackle Edin Dzeko. "You want to play against the best and he's right up there," stressed Keogh.
The only break from the stern tone of the preliminaries came when O'Neill was asked if Northern Ireland qualifying put any extra pressure on his shoulders. He shrugged it off and joked that Michael O'Neill is probably off enjoying a cigarette somewhere with a French ticket assured. "It's the same with Roy Hodgson and Chris Coleman and I'd like to join them on Monday night if at all possible," said the Irish boss.
To do that, he must find a way to quench the fire of a noisy arena and a determined football nation. One senses it will involve living on the edge.