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It’s now or never

The trips to Bratislava and Prague will make or break Ireland’s Euro 2008 campaign.

Tony Cascarino, 13 Sep 2007

It’s make-or-break time for Stan and the boys, with these two trips to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, games which are going to decide whether we qualify next summer. Two draws will be absolutely no use, so we’ll need to approach the Slovakia game as if we were at home, and go for the throat. If we get the three points there, we might be happy enough to get a point in Prague: four points would be a decent return. What we can’t do is afford anything less than a win in Slovakia.

Stan’s future depends on these two games, and he knows it.

It won’t be easy: we’ve had easier matches and failed. We’ve been very poor away from home in this group. But after a horrible start, there have been signs of progression and moving in the right direction, and we look like a side that’s a year or two away from being a serious force. The team is now starting to pick itself in most positions - the back four and the front two are settled. In midfield, there’s a bit more competition, with probably six lads fighting for four places.

The Slovaks play a very neat, short passing game, so there’s a good case for sticking Lee Carsley in there to break it up. But we have to be on the offensive and looking for goals as well, so we need someone who can play a killer pass: Andy Reid has to be the man. He was first-class against the Danes. I’d pick Stephen Hunt on the left and Aiden McGeady on the right: they’re both solid, and have a bit of flair about them and are capable of nicking goals. This means Stephen Ireland and Kevin Kilbane missing out, but Kilbane’s experience might be very useful coming off the bench.

The squad has a few fringe players - Jonathan Douglas, Alan O’Brien and the three Wolves lads - but it would be completely the wrong time to throw people in at the deep end. With games this crucial, you need your most reliable, proven, tried-and-trusted operators. If you’ve just won a friendly 4-0 away from home, against a side like Denmark, you have to keep doing the same thing that worked for you and stick with it.

Obviously, the nightmare scenario is that we get beaten twice. They say international managers are always two games from the chop, and Stan’s no different. If we have two games from hell, the pressure would become too much and there would be a clamour for his head. With luck, it won’t happen. But you need the public on your side, and if he loses the goodwill and trust of the fans, there’s no future for him. He seems to be growing into the job, after 18 months, and the team looks healthier than it did six months ago. But these two games are massive for him.

England have a make-or-break week too, with big qualifiers coming up against Israel and Russia. I expect them to win both games, but you can’t be certain. Since McClaren took over, they’ve been indifferent, they’ve really stumbled on occasion, and there’s been a few strange decisions - making a big deal of dropping David Beckham, then recalling him. He hasn’t really established a forward line, with Owen and Rooney being injured on occasion.

They seem to fall into some of the bad habits they picked up under Sven: Rooney gets very isolated up front. Their best player in this campaign, by a mile, has been Peter Crouch who was one of the scapegoats for the World Cup. It’s been tricky for McClaren: a lot of it hasn’t been his fault, but it looked like a very negotiable group and I’m surprised they’ve made as hard work of it as they have. There’s no need to panic, though: if they win both games, they’ll be in a great position.

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