Sunday 20 October 2019

Georgia won't lack motivation in their bid to derail Euro 2020 ambitions of old enemy Ireland

FAI's support of a venue change in 2008 was the beginning of an awkward relationship that hangs like a cloud over today's qualifier, writes Daniel McDonnell

Georgia’s Kakha Kaladze and is tackled by Stephen Hunt during the 2010 World Cup qualifier in Mainz. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Georgia’s Kakha Kaladze and is tackled by Stephen Hunt during the 2010 World Cup qualifier in Mainz. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile Sportsdesk

'There is no civil war in Georgia. We are not dangerous. We feel angry. What would happen if we played in the Tbilisi stadium? Nothing. It would only be a festival for thousands of people that are suffering."

The 2008 words of Kakha Kaladze, the one-time AC Milan star who is now the mayor of Tbilisi, helps to explain the complicated recent football history between Georgia and Ireland.

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It dates back to Giovanni Trapattoni's first competitive game in charge, and the successful pressure to move the September campaign opener from Georgia to a neutral venue due to a military conflict between the host and Russia over the breakaway South Ossetia province.

By the time the fixture came around, the conflict had calmed down. More pertinently, the trouble was always miles from Tbilisi, and there was no evidence to suggest that the capital would suddenly become a danger zone.

But FIFA had made their call weeks previously, and the Georgians had good reason to believe that the FAI had made representations to argue that it should be transferred.

"The FAI welcomes FIFA's decision to put the safety of fans and players first by playing this match in a neutral venue," read the Abbotstown missive which heralded the switch to Mainz, where the majority of the crowd wore green in a comfortable victory.

Georgia's anger over what they perceived to be an unfair punishment was a subplot to the Irish-centric view of the beginning of the Trapattoni era.

And subsequent events didn't exactly improve their view of that Irish group. The following February they came to Croke Park and got mugged by a dreadful refereeing decision which swung a game that Ireland were trailing in.

An offside flag was already in the air before a handball gave Robbie Keane the opportunity to level from the spot. He would go on to bag the winner, and Georgians had reason to smile when the Thierry Henry injustice deprived Ireland of a trip to South Africa.

The bizarre decision to welcome Georgia to Dublin for a distinctly unglamorous 2013 friendly was apparently a product of attempts to rebuild relationships at official level.

But fate has brought the teams together in the three subsequent major tournament campaigns. Aiden McGeady's injury-time winner sickened the natives in Martin O'Neill's first competitive match, and Ireland eked out a narrow victory in the return.

Fast-forward to World Cup 2018 and Georgia dominated for long spells at the Aviva, only for Seamus Coleman to burrow home a winner. There's a recurring theme of Georgian injustice running through this story.

So they really owed Ireland one when O'Neill's team rocked into Tbilisi in September 2017, a game that turned out to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the decline under the Derryman. All the warning signs were there. "I was quite new to the squad," says Conor Hourihane, an unused substitute in the fixture. "We got off to a great start and then they took control of the game really. They looked like a very good side. I don't think they get the credit they deserve, they always cause teams problems."

But there was a sense that Irish problems were self-inflicted, with the team going back into a shell against an understrength Georgian team after Shane Duffy's opener. It led to a 1-1 draw and a costly loss of momentum.

O'Neill was furious with the contribution of his central midfielders Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan, and he subsequently dropped them for the visit of Serbia three days later.

"It's all very well sitting back and allowing the other side to have possession but at some stage you have to get closer to players, that's just the name of the game," said O'Neill afterwards, in a tetchy exchange with RTE where he refused to go into specifics of why the team toiled.

Could he put his finger on it? "I can, yes, of course I can." Tony O'Donoghue then asked for clarity. "There's no point. Why? Why would I want to share it with you?"

It made for a strange atmosphere. Jon Walters came forth and stressed that players should take responsibility. "There's only so much the staff and the manager can do off the pitch," he said. "We've got to recognise certain situations on the pitch, and deal with them."

But Ireland went on to lose to Serbia, and the win in Wales a month later papered over the cracks. Whelan dropped out of favour and the love-hate relationship with Arter was summed up by the decision to take him off at half-time in the home playoff with Denmark, thus leading to the cavalier second-half change of tactics that culminated in humiliation. Some of the tensions could be traced to Tbilisi.

It's fitting, therefore, that Ireland end up back there at a key juncture of another campaign rich in promise.

"From the first time I've played them to now, the improvement in them has been immense," said Seamus Coleman yesterday. "We have massive respect for them."

There is a theory that it's better to take on Georgia late in the home stretch, as their focus can drift when qualification is out of equation and a certain volatility kicks in. Ireland have benefited from some of their better days, with Scotland's nightmare in 2015 and Denmark's struggles last month delivering favours.

This time around, there's a different reason for Georgian minds to be elsewhere. As a consequence of the new Nations League format, they are already guaranteed a playoff to reach next summer's finals.

The tweak to qualifying means that one of the 16 lowest-ranked teams in the continent at the start of the cycle will get to participate in a major tournament. Georgia were one of the strongest teams in that category, and will face opponents of a similar standard in an attempt to make a historic breakthrough.

In reality, these games are just their warm-up for the proper business. But that doesn't mean they will lack motivation to halt Ireland's march with another sucker punch in Tbilisi. If they need any more, they can just ask the mayor.

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