Wednesday 23 May 2018

Miguel Delaney: Small fry hold key to Ireland's big dreams

World Cup qualification could hinge on taking maximum points from Georgia and Moldova

‘Harry Arter has relished a greater responsibility at Bournemouth, offering Ireland more subtlety of passing in midfield'. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images
‘Harry Arter has relished a greater responsibility at Bournemouth, offering Ireland more subtlety of passing in midfield'. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Miguel Delaney

When Vako Kazaishvili's name is announced at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday, there is unlikely to be much reaction from the home crowd, but he probably deserves a cheer. Kazaishvili was the Georgian who scored the 38th-minute goal against Scotland back in September 2015 to give his team an unexpected 1-0 win, and give Ireland the final decisive initiative in the race for third place in their Euro 2016 group.

It summed up Georgia's significance, and the understated importance of their visit to Dublin this week. Sure, Ireland still had to go and beat world champions Germany to cancel out their own loss to Scotland in the last campaign, but that meant it all came down to their results against the two bottom teams: the teams they should usually beat.

Martin O'Neill's side claimed 12 points from Georgia and Gibraltar; Scotland just nine. The difference between third and fourth? Three points. Had Scotland overturned Kazaishvili's goal, they would have gone through to the play-off. It's as simple as that.

So, if not quite king-makers, Georgia could well be qualification-makers. The importance of beating them is likely to be amplified in this 2018 World Cup qualification series because of how thoroughly congested and competitive Ireland's group is. With four sides of a similar level, the potential for slip-ups and dropped points will be high, meaning a maximum return against Georgia and Moldova will be almost essential. It would certainly be a strong foundation.

Thursday night's match at the Aviva may not feel all that exciting, then, but it could be exacting. It is also likely to be awkward, as all of the previous meetings with Georgia have been. Ireland have played the former Soviet country in six qualification games, and won every one, but all of them have been a battle. Five of those games were only settled by one goal, with the other a mere 2-0 win.

That does not just reflect how dogged Georgia are. It also reflects a specific dilemma for mid-level teams like Ireland. Suddenly being the superior side doesn't necessarily come that easy, especially when most of your games are against those better than you, of a similar standard, or outright minnows like Gibraltar.

The managers must temporarily figure out how to transform their team from one who react to the opposition to one who take the game to them, without losing their key qualities. O'Neill's task is at least likely to be aided by the way Ireland developed and grew over Euro 2016. The intensity of their attack in at least three of those games - Sweden, Italy and France - was a step up from the qualification campaign, and better suits matches like this. Daryl Murphy's late equaliser in the more ragged 2-2 opening draw against Serbia will also maintain the good mood around the side.

Matt Holland played in Ireland's first two matches against Georgia, back in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, and explains how turgid a struggle these games can be.

"They have a good attitude, and don't give in," Holland tells the Sunday Independent. "Teams like that generally pack the midfield. They try and get an extra man in that area, try and overload to frustrate, and that can be a problem sometimes. We often played 4-4-2 and sometimes you get a bit outnumbered.

"I suppose we had the players, in Robbie [Keane] and Damien [Duff] who could win games individually as well. That's key, that bit of magic. And if it wasn't them who stepped up, we always had goals in the team. We had players who stepped up. . . now, last time we went to Georgia, [Aiden] McGeady scored two, and that was a bit of magic."

McGeady isn't quite in the same form as he was in that 2-1 win in September 2014 but other players have stepped up, and can offer those individual moments of inspiration. Jeff Hendrick has continued his upward surge since joining Burnley and, if Robbie Brady never got his move from Norwich City, he still looks as adventurous as he did in the European Championship. Harry Arter has relished a greater responsibility at Bournemouth, offering Ireland more subtlety of passing in midfield, and Jon Walters is back fit.

The way O'Neill uses all those players also makes this Ireland side less rigid than all of his recent predecessors' teams, especially in midfield. They certainly don't play a standard 4-4-2, and a defining trait of this managerial regime has been a consistent capacity to surprise, both in tactics and big moments.

It's just that Georgia aren't that predictable right now either. Manager Vladimir Weiss was in charge of the Slovakia side that Ireland pipped to Euro 2012 qualification, and has just been appointed amid something of an identity crisis in Georgian football. No longer possessing players of the quality of AC Milan's Kakha Kaladze, they are bottom seeds in this group.

Former Bundesliga player Levan Kobiashvili last year took over as federation president, though, and has put in place a plan to tackle all of this as well as more insidious problems like long-running match-fixing. At the same time, they still have a number of players in the relatively strong Russian league as well as similar-level clubs, and the feeling is that their placing in pot six of the draw gives something of a false perception of their quality. The federation have also tried a short-term measure to improve results by altering their usual managerial terms, this time giving Weiss a heavily bonus-based deal, in the hope that will influence the decisions that bring more points.

It did work to a degree in their opening group match against Austria, as Weiss turned a 2-0 half-time deficit that saw the team booed into a spirited 2-1 defeat that earned applause. That push-and-pull of performance has been evident since he took over in March.

A dismal 5-1 thrashing by Romania in June had brought huge levels of criticism, before Weiss pulled off a huge result just days later: Spain were sent to Euro 2016 smarting from a shock 1-0 home defeat Georgia, who always had around eight players behind the ball but allowed lively attackers like star man Kazaishvili and Tornike Okriashvili - who scored a screamer against Ireland in that September 2014 game - to roam.

This seems Weiss's likely approach to away games, and is what O'Neill will probably have to figure out on Thursday. Georgia, however, will not just have to unpick Ireland's flawless record against them. Ireland generally have a fine record against all teams seeded lower than third. Since 2000, out of 46 games against such sides, Ireland have only dropped points in 12, and four of those matches were against Scotland and Austria. Beyond those sides, there has only been one defeat, and that was to Cyprus under Steve Staunton. The two recent occasions they had a 100 per cent record in those games, meanwhile, were 2002 and 2012.

So, Ireland don't tend to drop points in these games. It could once more be the difference.

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