Friday 14 December 2018

No nightmare scenario to get in the way of World Cup dream

Italy and Croatia the teams to avoid, but Ireland should not be fazed by today's outcome

Robbie Brady and Martin O’Neill celebrate Ireland’s famous victory over Italy in Lille at the European Championships. Media coverage in Italy has identified Ireland as a team to avoid when today’s play-off draw is made Photo: Getty
Robbie Brady and Martin O’Neill celebrate Ireland’s famous victory over Italy in Lille at the European Championships. Media coverage in Italy has identified Ireland as a team to avoid when today’s play-off draw is made Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This is not the week to use insensitive language about football. As Ireland counts the cost of Hurricane Ophelia, there is nothing that happens in Zurich today which could be described as a disastrous outcome.

This afternoon's World Cup draw might succeed in providing some light relief in areas coping with real problems.

But this is a day of significance for everybody employed in Irish football and the staff, players and fans dreaming of a summer in Russia.

Around 1pm today (2pm Swiss time) they will find out which nation stands in their path.

In the aftermath of last Monday's triumph in Cardiff, Martin O'Neill offered an insight into what he was thinking.

Italy was the first nation that he name-checked when he was asked who he wanted to avoid.

O'Neill did not know the full range of seeded options at that point - Portugal were in the frame until they qualified automatically 24 hours later - but his gut response was informative.

It's easy to share that view when scouting the possible options.

Italy are a traditional power, and have only failed to qualify for one World Cup they have entered, which was in 1958. If Giovanni Trapattoni was still in charge he could have enlivened us with his memories.

But recent history has taught us that Italy can get the job done, even if they smack of a team in transition.

Play-offs tend to bring the best out of marquee nations, although Trap and the survivors from Paris might have their own take on the reasons for that.

There is a logic in wishing to avoid the Azzurri, much as Ireland's recent record against that opponent is reasonable enough.

For what it's worth, some of the media coverage in Italy has outlined Ireland as a team to avoid, perhaps with a handful of recent battles in mind.

An article in 'La Presse' last week even put Martin O'Neill's side down as the most feared opponent of the unseeded options - Northern Ireland, Sweden and Greece are the others.

The prevailing view in the other seeded countries appears to be that a Swedish operation who were sandwiched by France and Netherlands are the opponents to avoid.

Northern Ireland are being underestimated because of their size and moderate major tournament pedigree.

"The answer would have to be Northern Ireland," says Stefan Christensen, a journalist from Danish newspaper 'Ekstra Bladet', when asked what the locals there are craving from the draw.

"Danish fans aren't too familiar with their players. Greece would be good as well but the hostile atmosphere could make it a bit tricky. Most Danes would prefer to avoid Sweden as we lost to them in the Euro play-offs two years ago.

"The Premier League is highly rated in Denmark and a lot of the Irish players are well known to Danish football fans despite the lack of real stars.


"I guess Ireland would be the second worst draw for Denmark - but I think most Danes would consider Denmark as the favourites if it happened."

That's a fair approximation of how the others might be looking at it too.

A selection of Irish players said after Cardiff that no nation would want to draw them. That could be an optimistic take on things, but O'Neill's recognisable presence and that clichéd Irish fighting spirit means they will be afforded as much respect as the alternatives.

Ireland's players will slip into underdog mode if they land the Italians though.

After all, they're only here because they were unlucky enough to land Spain in regular qualifying - they did draw with Macedonia in the recent window when the game was up and veteran boss Gian Piero Ventura has failed to inspire. They have weaknesses, yet you'd prefer if they were somebody else's issue.

And then there's Croatia. Irish fans with scarred memories of Euro 2012 are keen to dodge a team with the ability to pass the opponents off the park and also handle themselves physically should O'Neill's charges ramp up the aggression.

The way in which Joe Allen ran Wales' matches with Ireland offered a window into how Luka Modric would fare against a unit that can lack subtlety.

They are the most volatile option available, though, with their October double-header showcasing that. The Croatians bottled it at home to Finland to hand Iceland the keys to the kingdom.

Amid talk of player unrest, Ante Cacic got the heave-ho before the decisive trip to Ukraine where a result was required to stay alive. Kiev was the destination O'Neill wished to swerve two years ago when the Euro 2016 play-off draw dominated minds.

Croatia went there to win comfortably and show what they can do when they are on song. But there are chinks in the armour that could be used to draw encouragement.

Switzerland and Denmark are the smiley-face emojis in this four-horse field.

Switzerland are quite efficient, which is verging into the same bank of stereotypes that declares Irish teams as spirited, but there is also a truth to it.

They never had any reason to fear missing out in the second-place table given they won their first nine qualifiers only to lose out to Portugal in Lisbon at the crunch.

Defeating Portugal in Basel was a notable scalp, although it was the opposition's first outing since winning Euro 2016 and those hangovers are common.

Their other points came from home and away victories over Hungary, the Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra. That was a kind draw. Switzerland were unremarkable at the Euros, where they were bland to watch, although they do have quite a young squad.

Last week, their limitations were apparent against the Portugese. Ireland's physicality would not faze them, and a bruising 180-minute battle is a likely scenario.

You suspect O'Neill would have taken that at the start of the competition.

Similar comments apply to Denmark who weren't good enough to peg back Poland but managed to edge out Montenegro in a strong autumn. Romania were top seeds in their group, which was a stroke of fortune for the Danes, and they overcame a scatty start to finish impressively.

In September, they hammered the Poles 4-0 and that will be the reference point for O'Neill in case a Danish draw results in any form of euphoria.

In Christian Eriksen, they have a blue-chip performer, and they have a solid core scattered around the top leagues in Europe.

In saying that, they missed out on the enlarged Euro 2016 and have a moderate recent record, so they would have to cope with giddy levels of expectation.

That is a key point here. The tendency to magnify our own shortcomings and pressures can overlook what the other protagonists in this tense format are going through.

They were all runners-up for a reason and will all be expected to take Ireland down. But if they were devoid of flaws, they'd already be on the countdown.

So there is no mission impossible waiting in the other pot at FIFA HQ this afternoon. The nightmare option was not making it this far.

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