Dion Fanning: Bosnian challenge will tell us a lot about Ireland but even more about Martin O'Neill
In the mining town of Zenica, 70 kilometres from Sarajevo, Ireland are preparing for their latest play-off encounter.
Martin O’Neill and the Ireland team arrived here on Thursday with the manager saying he looks enviously at countries like Northern Ireland who have already qualified for next summer’s finals without the agonies of a play-off.
“Obviously I think it would be fantastic if both countries qualified,” O’Neill said. “I was involved with the World Cup away back in 1982 and it was fantastic. It is a fantastic time and if you there and actually perform well it is a real added bonus. We have still to get there. Michael O’Neill is having a cigarette somewhere, smoking and enjoying himself. Roy Hodgson and Chris Coleman are the same. I'm envious, I'd like to join them if at all possible. I hope Michael takes that cigarette out of his mouth and stops smoking.”
Ireland have the opportunity to join them but their own history in these games and the absent players can make it seem daunting.
Ireland has seen the world through play-off games, from Paris in 1965 to Anfield, Brussels, Bursa, Tehran and Tallinn. There was, of course, another night in Paris, a night of magnificent if undeserved failure which is something of a speciality in Irish football history.
The two games against Bosnia will tell us more about this Ireland team, which seemed to take a giant leap with victory over Germany, but they will also tell us more about O’Neill as a manager. O’Neill arrived at the Bilino Polje stadium and issued a message which was in part defiant but which couldn’t ignore the absence of key players through injury and suspension.
“We’re here and we have to give it anything we’ve got. We can’t leave anything behind us,” O’Neill said.
Ireland’s manager admitted he would have to make adjustments to the approach because of the absentees, with David Meyler the latest to be ruled out.
O'Neill refused to see the injuries as anything but an inevitable part of football and he won’t allow them to be used as an excuse. “Nobody ever remembers who was injured.”
He repeated the theme of the week that Ireland wanted to be in the tie when the first leg is over. “I think the most important thing is still being in the tie.”
The 12,000 seater stadium in Zenica is favoured by Bosnia because it is an intimidating atmosphere for opponents. Even when it was empty on Thursday night, it was easy to see that it will provide what O’Neill described as a “lively atmosphere”.
Ireland will need to withstand that. O’Neill says Shane Long is making significant improvement and will be assessed over the weekend.
He wants Ireland to have something to play for when they walk out at the Aviva on Monday night. “While you can’t win it here, you don’t want to lose it.”
O’Neill will hope his players respond on Friday night. “We’ve talked about players here who haven’t been able to make it. That happens. We deal with the players who are here and who are ready for the challenge. It’s a big challenge.”