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Ciaran Cronin believes there is cause for optimism regarding Ireland’s qualification prospects for Rio 2014.

The Republic of Ireland are half way through their qualification campaign and still look in good shape to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Let’s take a look at their journey so far.

It all began on the 7th September 2012. Despite being ranked 139th in the world, Ireland faced a daunting task in round one at Kazakhstan. There were serious questions over the jet lag of the older players. They denied these allegations but didn’t help their cause when the hosts took the lead 6 minutes before the break. Thankfully, this wasn’t the only goal scored on the night. When it looked like Ireland were about to start off the campaign with a loss, they got a penalty 2 minutes from time. As sure as day follows night, Robbie Keane converted it. 1-1 and 2 minutes left. A minute later and it was 2-1 to the Emerald Isle thanks to a superb first-time volley from Kevin Doyle. 1 game and 1 win for the Boys in Green.

The Republic turned their attention 5 weeks later to the toughest team in the group, Germany. From the day the draw was made, everybody expected Germany to win all their 10 games. However, nobody knew how good they were until they came to Dublin.

From the kick-off, it was all attack from the Germans. Ireland were unable to string 3 passes together without being intercepted. It was a Men vs. Boys affair. 6 goals without reply meant an embarrassing night for the Irish. A Paul Green injury time goal saved some of the embarrassment. A 6-1 thumping at home can never be justified, even if it is to the second best team on the planet. That was night for Ireland to be the laughing-stock of the continent. As previously expected, 3 points from the opening 2 games.

Four days later saw Ireland fly to the Faroe Islands. After the humiliating defeat the previous Friday, the game was a must-win. A dull first-half saw the game goalless at the break. In contrast, the second half was a goal fest. Less than a minute in and Mark Wilson put Ireland ahead. The lead was doubled 7 minutes later through Stoke striker Jonathon Walters. Hanson pulled one back for the Faroe’s with 20 minutes remaining but an own goal followed by a Darren O’ Dea header meant Ireland coming away with a 4-1 win, and more importantly, 3 crucial points. A very respectable 2 wins from 3.

As it was taken for granted on Germany topping the group, the fight was always going to be for second place. After the first 3 matches, second place was going to be a toss-up between Sweden, Austria and Republic of Ireland. March would see Ireland face both of these sides in the space of 4 days.

Last Friday, Ireland headed to Stockholm with everyone expecting a Swedish win. After all, in their previous game, they hauled back a 4-0 lead for Germany in Berlin to earn a point. It became a question of damage limitation for the visitors. Ibrahimovic was on fire for PSG, Sebastian Larsson was scoring goals for fun in the Premiership and David Forde from Millwall was our only option in goal. It seemed impossible to leave the Swedish capital with any sort of result.

However, Ibrahimovic and Larsson, Ireland’s biggest threats, were non-existent in the 90 minutes meaning Ireland escaped with a point. A terrible 0-0 draw, but a vital point away from home. This left Ireland tied on 7 points with Austria, who were off the back of a 6-0 win over the Faroe’s, a loss to Germany and a win and an away draw against Kazakhstan. Last night saw them come to Dublin.

All eyes turned to the Aviva Stadium knowing that a win would put Ireland into second place on 10 points, leapfrogging Sweden. As the snow hailed down, Austria, who had been on the back-foot up until then, took an 11th minute lead through their prolific goal scorer Martin Harnik. The lead only lasted a quarter of an hour when Shane Long was brought down inside the Austrian box. With Captain Robbie Keane out through injury, Jonathon Walters took the honours and coolly converted the spot kick. It looked to be heading to half-time with a goal for each side until Ireland got an injury time corner. Glenn Whelan whipped in a great cross only to be met by the head of Walters. A second goal, and a third in the campaign, for the underrated striker. 2-1 at the break.

Both teams emerged from their respective dressing rooms with a different game plan. It became apparent 3 minutes in that Ireland were going to defend for the remaining half, hoping to catch Austria on the break. All 3 points looked secured, thanks to relentless defending by the home side, until the last minute when the ball found David Alaba on the edge of the box. With two Irish defenders coming out to tackle him, the Bayern Munich midfielder let rip planting the ball in the top right corner of Forde’s net. What a crushing blow for Irish hearts.

After last Tuesday’s game, Sweden, Rep. of Ireland and Austria all lay on 8 points with the Swedes having a game in hand. Germany, who have virtually one foot already in Brazil, are top of the table on 16 points. Despite the disappointment, there are many positives to take forward. Young blood, such as James McCarthy, Connor Sammon and Seamus Coleman, were introduced, Trapattoni for once decided to attack more, and Ireland remained unbeaten in the two encounters. We have taken everything that has been thrown at us and are still in a good position to qualify. If we can get some luck along the way combined with key players staying fit, there is no reason why we can’t be heading to Rio de Janeiro in June 2014.

Sport Is Everything. Ciaran Cronin.

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