Martin O'Neill 'happy' with Group but 'feared the worst' after Serbia came out of Pot Three
MARTIN O’NEILL has declared himself satisfied with Ireland’s World Cup 2018 qualifying draw after landing unlikely top seeds Wales, but thinks that every other manager in an open group will be feeling optimistic about their own chances.
O’Neill, who refused to get drawn into questions about whether he will be staying around after discussing the issue in Sligo last week, admitted that he was ‘fearing the worst’ after fourth seeds Ireland landed Serbia from the pot above them to join Moldova and Georgia - the first two sides to be allotted to Group D.
However, he was reasonably happy when Austria from emerged as second seeds, given that Italy and France were alternative opponents from that section. And the group immediately took on a kinder complexion after Wales emerged from the highest ranked pot after their staggering rise up the FIFA charts.
“While it’s a draw where I think the teams will take points off each other, I’m happy enough to be in it,” said O’Neill, who had admitted beforehand that he was keen to avoid another round of meetings with world champions Germany.
“Wales will be quite happy with the group they’re in too, I’m quite sure of that. Who knows what sort of progress they will make between now and the rest of the French tournament which I’m sure they’ll qualify for.”
Chris Coleman’s charges have been described as a one man team because of Gareth Bale’s contribution, yet O’Neill feels there is more to their success.
“Well, he’s a world class player, one of the best in the world but Aaron Ramsey has been a fairly decent player for a couple of years," he mused.
"The last World Cup campaign wasn’t all that great for them but they’ve got together, they’ve gelled, they’ve got excellent results against Belgium and there’s a lot of confidence about their side now. Who knows what might happen between now and then.
“They could go to France and light the place up and do exceptionally well so they’ll come into the World Cup with great confidence but I think, getting back to the point, if you were to speak to the coaches of the other sides, they’d say they are happy to be in the group.”
Similar to the Welsh, Austria are well on course to be in France next summer as they are top of their qualifying pool. Ireland have recent experience of the Austrians after late goals in Dublin and Vienna in the aborted attempt to make the last World Cup in Brazil effectively spelled the end for Giovanni Trapattoni.
Serbia are struggling, with a points deduction due to crowd trouble hindering a campaign where results on the pitch have been poor anyway. But they are the current U20 world champions and O’Neill expects considerable improvement. “I think they are a good side,” he said, “They made a hash of qualifying for the World Cup the last time when it was in their grasp. This time they are not playing so well but their U20 side is very strong.”
Ireland have never played Moldova before, but Georgia are familiar opponents who are in due in Dublin this September. Aiden McGeady’s late strike in Tbilisi got Ireland out of jail there last year, but the Georgians have struggled badly since then. Still, they are a tougher proposition than some of the whipping boys that were in the same category.
“They can take points off teams,” said O’Neill, “And that’s the point. If you are capable of taking points off each other then, who knows, you’ll stay involved in that group for a lengthy period of time.”
The fixture schedule will be released on Sunday morning with the new centralised TV rights agreement removing the possibility of bartering with Ireland having no input into the outcome.
O’Neill will now return to concentrating on the remainder of the Euro 2016 campaign, dismissing questions which sought to find out if the draw would have any input in his decision about the longer term.
Here is the draw in full:
Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg
Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra
Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, NORTHERN IRELAND, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino
Group D: WALES, Austria, Serbia, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND, Moldova, Georgia
Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan
Group F: ENGLAND, Slovakia, SCOTLAND, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta
Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia, Liechtenstein
Group H: Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus
Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland.