- Lifestyle & Sports
- 13 Nov 15
Our clash with Bosnia should provide 180 minutes of highly eventful football... But, with luck, we’ll survive
BOSNIA, here we come! Or what’s left of us, at any rate, with an alarming pile-up of untimely injuries and suspensions already beginning to bite deep into what was hardly an over-abundant squad to begin with.
Messrs Given and O’Shea will be unavailable for the trip to Zenica, at one stroke depriving us of about 500 caps’ worth of big-game savvy: we like what we’ve seen of Darren Randolph, but this is a classic case of being thrown in at the deep end. Of course, he rose stirringly to the challenge against world champions Germany and even ‘created’ the winning goal – to wit, an unsubtle 60-yard hoof deep into enemy territory, which caught the masters of the universe completely unawares, enabling Shane Long to sprint onto it and hammer it straight and true into Neuer’s net.
I was and am profoundly smitten by the simplicity of that entire manoeuvre, which took about ten seconds. The 21st-century gospel of pass-and-move, wherein pretty little passing triangles are accorded the highest of awestruck reverence and the ‘perfect’ goal consists of 25 short passes, is all very well, but there’s also a time and place for the giant Exocet launched deep into a position where it can do serious damage. Especially (whisper it) when your players are not particularly adept at stringing more than three passes together in a forward direction. We can snigger all we like about ‘caveman’ football, but we at least ought to recall that during the greatest summer in the team’s history, the magical roller-coaster they called Italia ’90, we scored a grand total of two goals in five games, and both those goals were effectively created by our goalkeeper’s giant hoof.
Almost tragically, the chances of Long being available for this one look remote. Disturbingly, his likeliest replacement – Daryl Murphy – is a 32-year-old who has mustered precisely zero goals in his 17 caps thus far, and is strictly in the ‘journeyman’ class. He did notch a hat-trick at the weekend against mighty Rotherham, but there is a more general point that we are not exactly spoilt for choice in the striking department. Robbie Keane remains available, but almost every outing in a green shirt over the last year or so suggests that he is fast approaching the realms of late-1990s- Tony-Cascarino in terms of overall usefulness, has become a 30-minute option off the bench at best, and will hardly strike terror into the Bosnian rearguard.
What of Bosnia? Here we reach a point where I cannot seriously claim to have seen enough to form any sort of judgment, so the only sensible way of evaluating them is to use match results as a yardstick. On all known recent form, they seem roughly equivalent to our good selves in terms of overall potency. There are few star names in the squad – Roma’s totem- pole striker Eden Dzeko, ex of Man City, his crafty team-mate Miralem Pjanic and the Chelsea keeper Asmir Begovic – but, disturbingly, they have considerably more players getting regular game-time at top-flight Spanish, German and Italian clubs than we do.
By contrast, we’re firmly in mend- and-make-do mode. Aiden McGeady has slipped so far down the pecking order at Everton he may as well be making the tea: 14 months on from his last meaningful contribution for Ireland, that stoppage-time bullet in Georgia, he’s beginning to enter forgotten-man territory. Stephen Ward and Marc Wilson are seeing action only intermittently, which surely must ring alarm bells in the context of a high-stakes two-legged playoff.
One silver lining of all these absences is that Wes Hoolahan will surely get the nod. I’m not in the business of second-guessing Martin O’Neill’s selection decisions (few sights are more unedifying than that of armchair pundits, with no practical experience in football, presuming to tell vastly experienced managers what team they ought to pick) but Wes’s absence in Warsaw certainly didn’t seem to help the cause, and his lock-picking abilities may be exactly what we need, in a tie that looks extremely likely to boil down to fine margins.
What to expect? Well, the odds- compilers, who make fortunes by getting this stuff more right than wrong, have Bosnia as favourites to progress, though by the narrowest of margins. And yet, having spent the entire column thus far outlining the multitude of good reasons to be pessimistic, I still have a sense that we’ll make it. It’s based less on gut feeling than on a belief that our pure workrate, industry and aggression will compare favourably to theirs: amidst all the doom and gloom, it may be worth recalling that Germany – yes, that Germany, reigning world champions – took one point from two games with us.
An away-goal (or two?) ought to be the target for the opening leg: even a 1-1 draw would be a perfectly acceptable outcome with the second leg still to come. The point is that, as skilful and worthy of respect as the Bosnians undoubtedly are, there ought to be absolutely no cause for an inferiority complex. A team who can out-score Germany over two legs of football has every reason to fancy its chances against anybody: no one can question the team’s dedication, spirit or unity of purpose, and while Ireland will certainly not be winning next summer’s European Championships, the thought of making a 24-team cut is hardly far-fetched. We hope.
Anyway, logic may be about to fly out of the window as we enter the zone where pure faith takes over. I’m expecting a highly eventful 180 minutes of football, with twists and turns aplenty, goals possibly more plentiful than anyone had bargained for, a few missed heartbeats and a demented second-leg atmosphere. And with luck, two weeks from now, we’ll still be standing.
Deep breath. Here goes.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jan 18