Improving Georgia look to build on good form
Tuesday night's clash with Georgia at the Aviva Stadium will be the Republic of Ireland's ninth competitive match against them in 16 years. It's the fifth time in the last nine qualifying campaigns the two teams have been drawn in the same group.
Ireland have never lost to Georgia, although their last meeting, and only draw, in Tbilisi, in September 2017, also proved to be the beginning of the end for Mick McCarthy's predecessor, Martin O'Neill.
That humiliating night in the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena was to prove the start of a bad week for the former manager and the end of automatic qualification hopes for last summer's World Cup finals in Russia. Three days later they lost at home to eventual group winners Serbia.
For the first time in their meetings, Georgia were dominant 18 months ago in that 1-1 draw, which was a reflection of their steady improvement since their recognition as an independent UEFA nation in 1992 and their first competitive matches in the Euro 96 qualifiers.
Unlike the Republic of Ireland and O'Neill, Georgia and their manager Vladimir Weiss rather enjoyed the Nations League. They were one of those to benefit from UEFA's decision to use the new tournament to enhance competition across the continent. Georgia were promoted to the C level and when it recommences, will be in the same draw as Ireland.
Thanks to their impressive undefeated campaign last year, they have an outside chance of being among the Euro 2020 finalists through the Nations League's format. But then so do Scotland.
It started with a 2-0 win over Scotland's shock conquerors Kazakhstan in Astana, on the anniversary of holding O'Neill's Ireland to that 1-1 draw. They scored another 10 goals in victories over Latvia, Andorra and Kazakhstan. Georgia came crashing back to earth with yesterday's 2-0 defeat to Switzerland, but that could make them even more dangerous opponents for Ireland.
They have had their stars over the years and a new one is emerging who may be able to make Georgia seriously competitive in qualifiers.
Previously the team was built around former Manchester City star Georgi Kinkladze - worshipped by the Maine Road faithful long before the major money men arrived - and the country's leading goalscorer Shota Arveladze, who enjoyed a successful four-year stint with Rangers.
And who could forget Temuri Ketsbaia, the bald Newcastle United player who famously took exception to the advertising hoardings after scoring at St James' Park?
Another one-time Ibrox player, Weiss has assembled a young squad who are playing regularly across Europe. He seldom selects outfield players from the Georgian league. His roster covers 12 different nations as well as two San José Earthquakes designated players, Guram Kashia and Valeri Qazaishvili, who have more than 100 caps between them.
Qazaishvili scored the equaliser to Shane Duffy's header 18 months ago and he added two more in the Nations League last year. Georgia shared the other 10 goals between them but the emergence of teenage playmaker Giorgi Chakvetadze has really excited the country.
Born in Tbilisi, a product of Dinamo Tbilisi's academy, he made his debut in the city derby aged 17, scored five goals in his first full season and signed for Gent for €1.5m last summer. Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Spurs were rebuffed by the teenager, who has matched that goals tally in Belgium already.
Barcelona are reportedly very interested in his progress and their scouts were in Andorra to see Chakvetadze score a brilliant goal in November, one of five he has scored in just seven appearances for his country.
The encounters between the two teams are usually close, with Ireland's wins being hard-fought and well-earned. Only once in the seven competitive wins have Ireland triumphed by more than one goal.
One of McCarthy's assistants, Robbie Keane, will have fond memories of playing Georgia - he netted five of his 68 international goals against them.
Keane scored the winner when the two sides met in Dublin during Giovanni Trapattoni's time in charge. Ireland won a World Cup qualifier, controversially switched to Mainz in Germany due to unrest in Georgia, but they made the worst possible start in the return fixture, falling behind in the first minute. Keane scored a penalty in the 74th minute before coming to the rescue with a headed winner five minutes later.
O'Neill's first competitive match was in the first Euro 2016 qualifying match when two goals from Aiden McGeady, including a sublime last-minute effort from distance, secured victory. Ireland won both home games under O'Neill 1-0, with Jeff Hendrick and Jon Walters scoring the winners.
Sunday Indo Sport