Wednesday 28 September 2016

If Iceland and North can get to Euros, we have no excuses

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Iceland captain Aron Einar Gunnarsson
Iceland captain Aron Einar Gunnarsson

There are only 330,000 people living in Iceland, just 1.8 million in Northern Ireland while Wales has a population of just over three million. Yet all three countries are on their way to Euro 2016.

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So it is time we quietened down a little about being a small nation. There are smaller ones than us out there who are booking flights to travel to France next year.

Can Ireland join them? Until Friday's events in Tbilisi, I would have been hopeful rather than expectant. Now, I think we will make it.

Three points tonight are a necessity, though, especially when you consider what we have next month: a date with the world champions and then a trip to Warsaw.

Historically, we tend to get credible draws in big away games rather than eye-catching wins, so a play-off spot really could come down to what we produce tonight.

And we will win, I've no doubt about that. The Georgians surprised the Scots (and me) by their spirited display on Friday but when you scan through their history, it's clear that their best days tend to be at home.

On home soil, as we have discovered ourselves, they can be tough to beat. Wales (5-0 in 1995!), Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Russia and Croatia have all lost there; France, Bulgaria again, Ukraine (twice), Switzerland and Italy have all been held to draws in Tbilisi.

But whatever you think about our record away from home, look at Georgia's. Since gaining independence, they have mustered victories over Albania, Wales, Moldova, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, the Faroe Islands and Gibraltar. And that's it.

Three draws - against Romania in 2001, Turkey in 2004 and Greece six years later - stand out. But so does this fact: in their last 24 away internationals they have lost 17 times.

They aren't the Georgia of old, the passionate, fiery, skilful side who let you know you were in for a game whenever you played them. Their standards have dropped. And Ireland have to take advantage of that.

Yes, Martin O'Neill will be thankful to them for what they did to the Scots, but if he wants to return the favour then the best thing he can do is head down to the local supermarket, get a box of chocolates and send it across to their team hotel.

This is the business end of the tournament now. Results matter.

And I have no doubt Ireland will get the right one, particularly if Robbie Keane is trusted to start again - which you'd imagine will happen but, given how often the team has changed in this campaign, you can't take anything for granted.

Okay, Robbie started five of the seven qualifiers but since being substituted mid-way through the second half of the 1-1 draw in Germany, he has been picked just twice, at home to Poland and then last Friday, in Faro.

Still, O'Neill knows these games (against the lower ranked sides in the group) are the ones he delivers in. His five goals in this campaign have all come against Gibraltar.

In the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, he scored six times, once against Sweden, a hat-trick against the Faroe Islands, twice against Kazakhstan.

And it annoys me that people downplay the importance of these goals because think back, again, to Scotland on Friday. They lost in Georgia, the same place we came back from with a 2-1 win, because they didn't have a goalscorer like Robbie Keane in their squad.

And history has shown that these groups often come down to what you do against the lower-ranked sides. Maximise your return from these games and you can sneak into a major tournament through the side-door.

Dropped

Remember the road to USA 94, when Denmark dropped points in Latvia and Lithuania?

Those two results, as much as Alan McLoughlin's goal at Windsor Park, got us on the plane to the States.

Similarly, a win tonight could prove vital in getting us into the play-offs, given that I think Scotland will lose to Germany and will, therefore, fall four points behind us.

Will a play-off be an acceptable return for a demanding public? In my mind it will be, because while the heroics of the Welsh, Icelandics and Northern Irish have proven what can be achieved with a little organisation and spirit, some additional context is also required.

Northern Ireland's group is a lot easier than ours. The top seeds, Greece, have drawn two and lost five of their seven games. Wales, too, have profited from the fact that Bosnia & Herzegovina have lost form.

Ireland, you hope, are finding form at just the right time.

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