Tuesday 16 January 2018

Ireland will need luck in play-off lottery but it could have been worse

Ukraine the unknown as seeded rivals vary in strength

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and assistant manager Roy Keane
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It will be hard work whatever happens. In Irish football, that's a given.

Estonia in 2011 was a blip, a welcome twist of fate that delivered an overdue slice of luck in the tension-filled world of qualification play-offs.

As expected at the start of play last night, Ireland will be unseeded in this Sunday morning's draw that will set out the fixtures that will determine the final four qualifiers for next summer's soiree in France.

This time last week, Martin O'Neill's side were actually on course to be in the seeded half if they made a play-off. But, of course, that was in doubt before the epic Aviva Stadium win over Germany.

In the days that followed, a Bosnian revival and a famous achievement for Albania ultimately did enough to push O'Neill's men into the wrong half of the draw. That's a fair trade-off for the fortune that was a part of the early stages of that extraordinary Dublin evening.


Still, a look at the four possible opponents leads to a simple conclusion: it could have been a lot worse.

At half-time in the concluding series of games last night, Croatia were in the mix. That was the one to avoid. Seconds before the full-time whistle, Denmark were in there until the consequences of Turkey's injury-time winner against Iceland created the kind of finish that co-efficient nerds dream about.

It put Turkey through to the finals proper as best third-placed side, dropping Hungary into the play-offs. Projections show that they will edge Denmark out of a seeded berth by just two points. The figures involved are 27,142 to 27,140 so that shows how fine it is; every result over the past three qualification campaigns suddenly became very important.

Under the UEFA criteria, Ireland are the sixth highest rated team. But they will not be afraid of the nations they could face next month over two legs.

Ukraine are the unknown and the two countries have never met at senior level. They were solid in a group where Slovakia burst out of the blocks and Spain came to the fore in the dying stages. That would be difficult.

Sweden do not intimidate but Zlatan Ibrahimovic does. Bosnia have been flaky throughout their road to here, including last night when they gave away an early lead in Cyprus to fall behind and then stage a revival in a 3-2 success.

Hungary came third in a group where Northern Ireland topped the pile. They are the side Irish fans will fancy, although Belfast hero Michael O'Neill last night told Newstalk that people would be wrong to underestimate their pool.

His counterpart Martin O'Neill has been amongst those to highlight the contrast in opponent faced by the two teams on the island although he was quick to offer warm congratulations.

"A lot of people thought that our group wasn't as tough as some of the others but to be honest I don't think that was the case," insists the Northern Irish boss.

"The difference in our group was that Greece, the top seeds, capitulated. But Romania and Hungary both almost qualified for the previous World Cup."

The key to progression, he says, was the momentum from a good start and excellent levels of discipline which allowed him to keep a settled side.

"We started well," he said. "The fact we had nine points after three games and two away wins (Hungary and Greece) put us in a phenomenal position.

What O'Neill learned in his first two years in charge of Northern Ireland was that the big guns with greater resources managed to have a settled team and he tried to replicate that.

"Last time around, Roy Carroll and Steven Davis were the only two players that played 10 games," he explains.

"Nobody came close. We can't carry that amount of fluctuation in the team.


"When I looked for Russia and Portugal (opponents in 2014 group), they had loads of players who had played all 10 games. Even the strong nations with much greater qualities of player need that consistency of selection to ensure qualification and that's something we looked at greatly."

Down in Dublin, the elder O'Neill, has struggled to find that continuity in his first campaign at the wheel.

Knowing that the banned John O'Shea and Jon Walters are out of the first leg, his immediate priority is good news on the injury front.

Shay Given will be available for the drama after it emerged that the knee problem he sustained against Germany will clear up.

Shane Long is also on course to recover from November after he was stretchered off in the deflating loss to Poland on Sunday, while Norwich are waiting to discover the details of a scan which Wes Hoolahan underwent upon his return to England earlier this week.

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