A fog of gloom if we fail to progress
Tomorrow night's match in the Aviva may well be the most important one in decades for Irish football. That's because, first of all, we simply have to qualify for next year's European Championship finals. Anything less will count as the most abject of failures.
With England, Wales and Northern Ireland already having made it there and plucky little nations like Iceland, Albania and Slovakia also having taken full advantage of the fact that this will be the first ever 24-team tournament, for the Republic to be shut out would seriously damage the credibility of the game in this country.
It could be a while before we have this good a chance of qualifying for a finals tournament again. With only 13 guaranteed spots for European sides at the 2018 World Cup finals, getting to that one will be literally almost twice as difficult. Last week's defeats for the under-19s by Slovenia and the under-21s by Lithuania show that the serious structural problems in Irish soccer won't be solved by combing schoolboy leagues in London and Birmingham for lads with Mc and O in their surnames. This opportunity to take our place in the sun and give the long-suffering soccer public a few big days out may not come again for a while.
Above all, tomorrow night's match is hugely important because, after what transpired in Zenica, failure to complete the job at home would rank among the great national sporting catastrophes. Or so I believe, anyway, as what exactly happened there remains as shrouded in mystery as some clandestine Cold War espionage operation. For example, rumours that a couple of players were bitten by the Hound of the Baskervilles have yet to be confirmed at the time of going to press.
However, the one thing - perhaps the only thing - which was clear in Zenica was the difference it makes to be playing for one of 24 rather than 13 places against a team which finished third, rather than second, in this group. On this evidence Bosnia are much inferior to Poland and more along the lines of Scotland. And they seem to lack the technical ability and subtlety of the Georgian side which gave Ireland so much trouble at home and away. Rather, they are a team somewhat like ourselves - physical, spirited, hard-working and prone to resorting to the long ball in times of trouble. The match had the flavour of an old-style FA Cup clash, albeit one played in a steam room. Bosnia's style suited Ireland and should again tomorrow.
The utter oddness of the spectacle in Zenica seemed well suited to a campaign which has defied logic from start to finish. We are, after all, in this position because we took five points out of six against the world champions and one point out of six against the two teams seeded below us when the draw was made. Though you still pitied both players and spectators who had to suffer through conditions which would have generated no end of social media mockery had they been witnessed at some junior GAA match. Had the League of Ireland allowed a big game to be continued with visibility at such a crepuscular level, they'd never have heard the last of it.
Yet from what we could see it was apparent that the play-off, as often happens, was a kind of summing up of the evidence presented in the group games. The flourishing of Robbie Brady continues, for one thing, and perhaps the most frustrating thing about the fog was that it denied us a clear view of one of the great individual goals in Irish history. It was a wonderful demonstration of what Brady can do and why it's worth persisting with Steven Ward at left-back - even if he displays all the calm and assurance of a novice tightrope walker trying to cross the Cliffs of Moher on a windy day. Brady simply offers too much to be marooned in a position where he's completely at sea.
When given his freedom he is an exhilarating heir to the great Irish technicians of the past - there is a bit of Ronnie Whelan to him, and some Gerry Daly too. It's conventional wisdom that the system of coaching in this neck of the woods doesn't produce players with the same level of technical ability as the continental Europeans - in which case Brady is a marvellous anomaly. Someone at St Kevin's Boys deserves serious credit for polishing this particular pearl.
You couldn't get a less continental-style player than Richard Keogh. But the Derby County man was a colossus at the heart of the back four on Friday night and has emerged as the surprise hero of the campaign. Keogh showed his mettle when, on the night in Scotland that most of his team-mates went missing, he did a very good impression of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. And the criticism he took from not putting away that late header in Warsaw struck me as unfair. Keogh was only there to win the header in the first place because he'd taken it upon himself to make things happen.
Beside him, Ciaran Clark showed that whatever about the failings of the English coaching system when it comes to imagination and creativity, it is unrivalled for producing solid central defenders - something which also benefitted Wales and Northern Ireland hugely on their way to the finals. Darren Randolph made a fine save from Senad Lulic, looked utterly assured and suggested that the goalkeeper's jersey should be his for the foreseeable future. He's been another revelation.
Midfield remains problematic. Once more focusing on the positive side necessitates talking in terms of, 'breaking things up', 'getting stuck in' and 'doing a job'. Constructive play was almost wholly absent. This is how it's been all through the campaign and it may well be that, having secured the away goal, we will play in the same cautious fashion tomorrow night. However, you have to think that at some stage we will have to come out and take the initiative, something we've been uneasy about doing under O'Neill and Trapattoni before him. Yet the suspicion is there that, to clinch qualification at some stage, a more adventurous approach may need to be adopted, even if only for part of the game.
Bosnia, after all, look eminently beatable. Edin Dzeko, like Robert Lewandowski, has always produced when his team need it most - and he did it again with the late equaliser on Friday. Emir Spahic is a Richard Dunne-like figure at the heart of the defence and will play a big role in Dublin. Senad Lulic showed glimpses of why he's done so well at Lazio, but Miralem Pjanic showed none of why he's made it at Roma. Their most influential figure was actually the unheralded Edin Visca, who plays with Istanbul Basaksehir, who tormented Ireland on the right side of midfield and suggested he'll be extremely dangerous on the break in Dublin. But, overall, they're not a team to be scared of.
So it all comes down to a final 90 minutes. And Bosnia's away record in the group, where they lost 3-1 away to Belgium and 3-0 away to Israel, suggests we have grounds to be hopeful. It's been an epic journey, so much so that the opening match in September of last year - when we beat Georgia 2-1 with a last-gasp Aiden McGeady goal which turned out to be utterly crucial - seems to belong to a different era altogether.
That match showed that, while Ireland don't make things easy for any opposition, they're also not inclined to make them easy for their supporters. Yet here we are. Martin O'Neill shouldn't be hailed as a messiah if Ireland make it through tomorrow night - we really should be making the top 24 in Europe and were seeded for automatic qualification. And when it comes to play-off opponents, Bosnia are more of an Estonia than a France or Turkey. But France seemed such a distant prospect at one stage that this might well be the sweetest qualification of them all.
Hopefully, we won't live to regret that late equaliser in Zenica. Because, if we don't make it through, the first leg will have to count as a mist opportunity.
Sunday Indo Sport