- Lifestyle & Sports
- 07 Aug 15
The consensus has been that Ireland landed a kind World Cup draw, but our columnist feels compelled to sound a note of caution...
So, was Foul Play happy with our World Cup draw?
Well, using the word ‘happy’ in any context at all pertaining to Ireland’s football team these days tends to be something of a black joke, but I think we can all agree that it was far less apocalyptic than it might have been.
Specifically, the sigh of relief when the Tier One pot yielded the dread name ‘Wales’ as our designated heavyweight opponents surely
reverberated around the land. They have some outstanding footballers, two of whom (Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey) are of the very highest calibre, and their resurgence under Chris Coleman has been spectacularly impressive. A thoroughly deserved recent victory over the official World No. 2 team (umm, Belgium) has put our Celtic cousins in an extremely strong position to reach a major finals for the first time in 58 years.
Nonetheless, that last stat may be instructive. Fifty-eight years? In terms of general pedigree, the Welsh have been non-runners for decades: even when they have had a sprinkling of first-rate players (few international teams wouldn’t have found room for Neville Southall, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs) their strength in depth tended to dip precipitously once you descended to their bench and the outer fringes of their squad. Martin O’Neill, who can talk for Ireland when he’s in the mood, rattled on extensively about their rise in fortunes after the draw, and amidst all the lip-service, he couldn’t possibly hide the reality that he’d been dearly hoping to be paired with Coleman’s dragons, as opposed to, say Germany, Spain or Holland. The rest of the group isn’t
prohibitively intimidating either. We haven’t encountered Serbia in combat yet, though the rump Yugoslavia who split six points with Mick McCarthy’s crew in ’99 was effectively a Serbian national team in all but name.
Current form suggests that they are in a dreadful place for a squad so amply stocked with natural talent: to wit, bottom of their Euros group with a grand total of minus-two points from five games, a state of affairs partially accounted for by the recent carry-on in their home fixture against Albania, wherein a hardcore of their fans took it into their heads to invade the pitch and physically attack the Albanian players.
The overlap between Serbia’s fascist fringe and its football culture is a strong one: many of those who worked overtime in Bosnia’s killing fields from 1991-5 were actively recruited from the ranks of the Red Star and Partizan ultras. There are seasoned hooligan watchers who do not hesitate to describe this contingent as the nastiest, most irredeemably violent and racist in the known football universe, which surely cannot do the team itself any favours.
Nonetheless, with talents such as the Chelsea double-act of Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic to call upon, they are surely due a marked improvement in the short to medium term, and will hardly be quaking in their boots at the DVD evidence of Ireland’s displays for the last, hmm, several years.
What of Austria? After a prolonged footballing depression lasting the guts of 25 years, they appear to be finally restored to something resembling rude health, standing tall atop their Euros group by some distance after an excellent campaign which has included home and away wins over Russia. Indeed, England aside, they look like being the first team in Europe to book their tickets.
The only genuine A-list player in their ranks is Bayern Munich’s David Alaba, a man whose name rightly chills Ireland fans to the bone after our paths crossed in the World Cup qualifiers: we took one point from a possible six off them, so they are probably entitled to look down their noses at us at this point in time.
Indeed, we can’t realistically have the faintest cause for complaint if Wales or Serbia do exactly the same.
Let us pause to be thankful, for now, that no-one in the group looks exactly unbeatable. But by the same token, Ireland’s mediocrity has been so pronounced for over a decade now that it seems fair to say our opponents will also be perfectly comfortable, if not downright delighted, at being paired with us.
Here, a look at the bookies’ odds may be instructive. These odds are formulated by squads of highly-paid experts who make an excellent living out of getting it right, with all the benefits of state-of-the-art sporting analytics at their fingertips.
These wise men (and women) have examined Group D and concluded that it is a three-and-a-half-horse race; and yes folks, you’ve guessed it, we are indeed seen as the weakest link. The other trio are rated as essentially neck-and-neck, all fluctuating between general odds of 2/1 and 3/1 to top the group. We are available at a general 5/1, very definitely fourth in the pecking order: and we ought to bear in mind that even third place would lead us nowhere, while second place — should we achieve it — still only guarantees us a two-legged play-off against a team in all likelihood more vaunted than ourselves. In other words, we are up against it. To look this far ahead does not imply for a moment that Foul Play has given up on the Euros campaign in which we are currently engaged, but we need snookers there too. These are hard times.
Casting my eye to more immediate matters, the cross-channel Premier League is about to resume combat, and a swift perusal of the gambling markets for said event has, yet again, served to reinforce the sense that they don’t get much wrong. They may, if anything, have under-estimated Chelsea’s potential supremacy, and serious ‘heavy hitters’ with deep pockets might look at the 13/8 against and decide it is a smart call. Mourinho’s men set no pulses racing last year, and produced very little in the way of memorable football, yet still finished a comfortable eight points clear after an undeniably pedestrian title ‘race’.
This year, it might be reasonable to expect more in the way of fireworks. Mourinho won’t readily stop being a ‘shut the back door and win 1-0 or 2-0’ man any time soon, yet this perceived conservatism has led to conflict in the past with his master Roman Abramovich, who reportedly would prefer to see something a little more swashbuckling, as indeed would the ‘neutrals’, almost none of whom warm to the club. Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 crew actually got the balance right, scoring goals for fun (103 that year) while still winning the Double, and although Blues fans would surely settle for retaining their crown, it mightn’t be too much to ask them to do so with a bit more style. Progress past the last-16 stage of the Champions League wouldn’t go amiss either.
Foul Play’s beloved Man City undoubtedly lead the chasing pack and are easily the second-likeliest winners, and although the fee forked out for Raheem Sterling seems a little on the pricey side for an unproven 20-year-old with less than 100 career appearances and fewer than 20 career goals, it’s also perfectly plausible that he’ll slot in seamlessly and provide the width and pace that seemed largely lacking last year. There is little if anything to split Arsenal (third last year) and Manchester United (fourth), while Liverpool’s remarkable near miss in 2014 already begins to look like a freak annus mirabilis not entirely unconnected to their absence from European combat that season, giving them a schedule some 15-20 fixtures lighter than all their rivals.
If there is one thing that stands out as a possible outright pricing error, it’s the bookies’ view of a Tottenham Hotspur crew which came fifth last year (ahead of Liverpool, just about) while performing well below the level which the talent in their ranks suggests they should be capable of. I don’t suggest that they are about to win the title, but a price of 150/1 is surely dismissive to the point of being insulting, and 13/2 for a top four spot is worth a tentative nibble at least. In the Top Scorer stakes, I wouldn’t dream of looking past City’s magnificent maestro Sergio Aguero, assuming he stays fit.
At any rate, it’s all about to get started in earnest and take on a life of its own, as it always does. Bring it on.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jan 18