Ireland will awaken tomorrow either on the ultimate high or unbearable low. Tonight’s play-off is unpredictable but certainly very winnable in Irish eyes.
On the bearing of the entire qualifiers, it is debatable if either side deserve a place in Russia. However, judging on making things happen when they matter, there is no team that deserves it more than Ireland over the last four years.
Ireland’s last World Cup qualifying campaign saw some limp performances, no fight when behind and no ambition to win when level. Much of this was down to Giovanni Trappatoni’s over conservative approach. The Italian’s heart was in the right place but his arrogance was blinding.
Alas, Martin O’Neill replaced the former Juventus boss in 2013. After a slow start, O’Neill finally found his most trustworthy troops and favoured system. Although things have been overwhelming on the surface, the overall picture has been dramatically corrected.
O’Neill’s first campaign saw a tough draw in what was a more straight forward qualification format. On his first competitive outing, Aiden McGeady struck late in Tblisi to secure what is now evidently a difficult win.
Ireland then did the unlikely and secured another last minute goal a couple of games later, this time John O’Shea’s equaliser in Germany. A loss to Scotland followed but what many forget was the fight Ireland showed in the closing moments, striking the crossbar with one of the last touches of the game.
2014 came and so did another late goal, with Shane Long denting Poland’s momentum. A draw with Scotland then threw a curve ball meaning a win against Georgia and group favourites Germany were required. The brief was clear and so were the results with both sides put to the scalp securing a play off against Bosnia.
Despite having an away goal advantage, O’Neill’s side knew a win would make the ride a bit more comfortable back home in Dublin. Jon Walters exceeded expectations by netting a brace to send Ireland to Euro 2016 in France.
The finals saw a mixed start. A draw with Sweden and loss to Belgium set up a must win against a heavily favoured Italy. Yet again, the requirement was set out and Ireland obliged, Robbie Brady the hero before Ireland honourably went out to the French.
This ability to come up with the answers when the questions were asked has become a major trait of Martin O’Neill’s Ireland. For one of Ireland’s poorest available sides on paper in years, they have exceeded the talent of over a decade ago and have defeated teams ranked above them, something that took years to achieve.
This theme continued into the World Cup qualifiers. A win was needed against Austria to create gaps in the group and give Ireland momentum. This was achieved, followed by a draw against Wales in Dublin. What many forget is that the Irish were depleted against a full strength Welsh side.
Ireland lost captain Seamus Coleman in that tie and with that their momentum. Disappointing draws with Austria and Georgia, followed by a loss to Serbia set up the worst case scenario, a must win in Cardiff.
Alas, Ireland yet again obliged to the necessary. James McClean’s sweet strike set up an unlikely play off and the best chance Ireland could have to get to a World Cup for the foreseeable future.
Ireland perform when the pressure is on, when the questions are asked and when a specific result is the be all and end all. A score draw in Dublin would hurt more than a loss so Ireland know the win is crucial. The brief is set out and the squad has always responded, tonight will be no different and Irish fans can have every confidence in seeing the Boys in Green in Russia next summer.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena