Tuesday 20 February 2018

Grounds to believe North can confound odds again

The European Championships draw functions as a very effective test for telling whether Northern Ireland fans are optimists or pessimists
The European Championships draw functions as a very effective test for telling whether Northern Ireland fans are optimists or pessimists

Eamonn Sweeney

The European Championships draw functions as a very effective test for telling whether Northern Ireland fans are optimists or pessimists. The glass half empty brigade will bemoan the fact that the team didn't end up in Group A or F. Their positive thinking counterparts on the other hand will point out that it could have been consigned to the lions' dens of D or E.

Pessimistic Paul will point out that top seeds Germany are perhaps the strongest team in the competition. But Optimistic Oliver will counter by noting that the North are scheduled to meet the world champions in the third round of games when it's possible Germany will already be through and might not field a full-strength team.

To which the pessimist will reply that Northern Ireland might well be done and dusted by then. The optimist will say 'catch on to yourself' and point out that the fact of 16 teams qualifying from the group stages means hardly anyone will be gone after two games. It may even be possible to qualify with just one win, providing you avoid getting a hammering along the way. Oliver may even mention the Republic of Ireland's four points out of six against the Germans in the group stages or, if he's in particularly manic form, the 1984 European Championships qualifying campaign when the men in green beat West Germany both home and away.

At which point Ray the Realist will intervene and say that in all likelihood Northern Ireland's fate will be decided by their games against Poland and the Ukraine. It's probable that Michael O'Neill will be targeting a draw in the opening game against the former and a victory in the encounter with the latter which follows.

The pessimist will say this is a tall order for a team who the bookies had as 300/1 outsiders before the draw was made, the longest odds against anyone apart from Albania. But the optimist will point out that they have already confounded the odds by becoming the lowest-ranked team in the history of the competition to win a qualifying group and that the Hungarian and Romanian teams they finished ahead of aren't all that different from Poland and the Ukraine in terms of quality.

At which point Gloomy Graham will butt in and mention Poland's win over Germany and the presence in their team of Robert Lewandowski before retiring to weep in the corner. Happy Henry will shake his head and invoke Poland's matches against Scotland, two draws against a side no stronger than Michael O'Neill's team.

The Ukraine will also provoke contrasting reactions. They are an experienced team backboned by the Dynamo Kiev side which has just reached the last 16 of the Champions League, and conceded just five goals in 12 matches during qualifying. But they couldn't qualify for the knockout stages of the last European Championships despite being one of the host nations and have only properly qualified for one major tournament finals in their history.

There's also the fact that their defensive impermeability owes a lot to an exceedingly cautious approach which means their meeting with Northern Ireland is likely to be a grind of a game between two teams hoping to nick a winner from a set piece or on the break. The Stade des Lumieres, Lyon on June 16 will be no place for the purists.

However you look at it, at least Northern Ireland don't have to face into a group containing Italy as second and Sweden as third seeds. There were pretty thin pickings for the optimists among the Republic of Ireland fans, whose main consolation was recalling that Ireland played their best football in the group against the one side who seemed unquestionably superior to them.

And perhaps a group which on first sight seemed peculiarly cruel may suit Martin O'Neill. Despite the flourish against Bosnia in the play-off second leg, previously in qualifying the Ireland boss seemed happiest designing strategies of containment. He'll get plenty of practice at that after a draw which means most sports departments will be installing a computer shortcut which enables the phrase Group of Death to be created by a single keystroke.

The final match against Italy will summon up memories of that deadest of dead rubbers in the last European Championships. Ireland had one foot on the plane by then but barring absolute disaster things will be very different this time and a lot may hinge on the June 22 meeting between Italy and ourselves.

It all whets the appetite even further for what promises to be an intriguing few weeks - who doesn't fancy that England-Wales clash on June 16? For the next few months the fans of both Irish teams, optimists and pessimists alike, will start dreaming that Bordeaux, Nice and Lille can join Genoa, Stuttgart and Valencia as place names to conjure with.

Sunday Indo Sport

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