Friday, 6 September 2013

Crunch Time for the Boys In Green

Personally, I can't remember looking forward to an international break as much as this in a very long time. Qualification for the World Cup in Brazil hangs in the balance as the Boys in Green face Zlatan and his Sweden side at the Aviva on Friday before travelling to Vienna for what (depending on Fridays result) could either be a huge or a meaningless match altogether against Austria. Who snatched a late equaliser at the Aviva in March to set up this predicament nicely.

I'll sum up the qualification situation briefly:

    • Ireland, Sweden and Austria all tied for 2nd in Group C on 11 points.
    • Austria have the best goal difference (+10), followed by Sweden (+4) and lastly Ireland (+2), thanks in no small part to the 1-6 pummelling by Germany last October.
    • Each of the three teams have four games left. All have to play the other two, Germany once and one of the minnows (Faroes or Kazakhstan).  
    • Simply, the team who picks up the most points over the next four games will finish 2nd and more than likely go into the play-offs (the worst runners-up in Europe are eliminated straight away, at the moment it's England).

So what will Ireland have to do to qualify? Simply put, they have to do something they have yet to do under Giovanni Trapattoni and beat an established international team.

The list of teams Ireland have beaten in competitive games since the Italian took over in 2008 is not exactly a who's who of European giants. Georgia, Cyprus, Armenia, Andorra, Macedonia, Estonia, Kazakhstan and the mighty Faroe Islands have all been seen off. If the Irish have any intentions of going to Brazil next summer, the names either Sweden, Austria, or alternatively and highly unlikely, Germany are going to have to add a touch more gloss to this list.

Trapattoni announced his side for the Sweden game at his 3pm press conference on Thursday. I've always found it quite unusual that he announces his teams the day before, thereby giving the opponents a full 24 hours to prepare for exactly what they are going to face. To my knowledge this doesn't happen anywhere else. I really don't know the reasoning behind it but nevertheless it gives us a chance to look at the team that will face Sweden, show here:

Starting XI vs Sweden

There was rumours circulating prior to the team being announced (based on the fact he was wearing a bib in training on Wednesday) that Anthony Pilkington was in line for a first start on the left wing. Personally, I would have picked Robbie Brady above everyone as he's been brilliant for Hull so far this season. Trapattoni however as we well know tends to ignore form totally when selecting his team so has picked Wigan's James McClean on the left side.

Looking at the defence there were no real surprises. He was always going to recall Richie Dunne despite him having just three Championship games for QPR under his belt since Euro 2012. Risky I feel, considering the magnitude of the game and the brilliance of the striker he's up against. That said I'd be more worried if he was up against a quick and mobile striker. Ibrahimovic is anything but. Dunne has never been an example of a prime conditioned athlete and a year away from competitive action will not have helped this. His experience of playing in the big games for Ireland probably does give him a slight edge over Ciaran Clark however. I'm a fan of Clark and  I think if he continues at the level he's at, he will be a regular in the centre of the Irish defence for the next decade.

Dunne's Ireland career is not quite as over as he may have thought in this moment

Marc Wilson plays as a defensive midfielder for Stoke now. Nonetheless he's still probably the best option the squad has at left back. Great to see Coleman finally nailing down the regular place he's richly deserved for about three years now. No qualms with Forde either. He was brilliant in Stockholm and will need to be again. The chances of Ireland scoring two or more goals against anything other than a mediocre defence are quite slim so a clean sheet Friday night is vital.

I didn't expect Trapattoni to change his midfield. Not in the slightest. I don't rate Glenn Whelan and never have but the manager seems to like him so consider him a mainstay for the rest of the campaign. One good thing I can say about him is that he doesn't do a whole lot wrong. I'm pleased James McCarthy is in, he will provide a little something extra going forward than the likes of Paul Greeen. I do feel there is space for Darron Gibson to return once he's fit. But unfortunately I can't see him playing under the current manager again. Blame both of them equally for this. Trapattoni for picking Paul Green ahead of him and Gibson for being a complete diva about it.

On the flanks, as I said I would have picked Brady or Pilkington over McClean. James McClean's career has taken a bit of a nose-dive over the past year. I was in the Aviva for his debut in 2012 and I've never seen a new cap receive such a warm reception. Back then he was one of the form players in the Premier League. Since then he's slumped, fell out with two managers at Sunderland and been sold to Wigan. His talent is unquestionable. His application and attitude are.

McClean: Always been a controversial figure

Robbie Keane seems to have this 'undroppable' tag fixed on him in Trapattoni's eyes. Looking at it from a tactical point of view, few can argue that Wes Holohan is not the better option. Playing as an advanced playmaker just behind Shane Long he would be capable of creating chances for the frontman whilst also bringing the two wingers into play more. However Robbie is the captain and will never be dropped for a competitive game so long as Giovanni is in charge and, to be fair, it's hard to argue with that. His record is among the best in international football. And without him it's difficult to see where the goals are going to come from. Shane Long is the next highest scorer amongst the current squad with nine goals. Only one of which came in a competitive game - a 2-3 defeat at home to Russia in 2010.

Up to this point, Trapattoni has adopted a must-not-lose approach to these type of games. Secure draws against the rivals. Beat the minnows and go into the play-offs. Thus far its worked. Ireland qualified for Euro 2012 via the play-off route (helped in no small part by being drawn with Estonia) and certainly should have done the same for the World Cup in 2010 when they met France in the play-offs. We all know what happened there of course.

So two 0-0's and we're through yes? Not this time...

This has to change and it has to change now. Two draws over the next five days will see Ireland virtually eliminated from World Cup qualification. Relying on either snatching what would be a famous win in Cologne, hoping Austria come unstuck in Kazakhstan (not out of the question, they drew 0-0 in Vienna) or Sweden doing likewise in the Faroes (not going to happen). With this is mind I had been hoping for a more adventurous, attacking line-up for the Sweden game. Watching Ireland has been downright painful over the past number of years. The Wales game last month was one of the worst games of football I've ever seen and there have been plenty others like that. To witness a team playing for a 0-0 draw right from the start is a terrible sight.

Given the line-up is practically the same as it always is, I hope we do see a different attitude from the players. They can't be content to just sit back and let Sweden come at them for the 90 minutes. Ireland have to go for this one. Taking Ibrahimovic out of the picture and looking at both sides, there isn't much to chose and Ireland should have nothing to fear from the Swedes. They tend to play a 4-4-1-1 formation with Ibrahimovic just off the main striker, in this case probably Johan Elmander. Sebastian Larsson on the right wing is another name who'll be familiar to followers of the Premier League. He can cross the ball as well as the best of them and his delivery from set pieces is where Sweden will be dangerous with plenty of height in the team.

The bookies make Sweden slight favourites, as good as 13/8 with Ireland at 2/1 mostly. Interestingly each side are a shorter price to win than the price for a draw which emphasises the importance of a win for both sides. With the worst goal difference of the three sides gunning for a play-off spot, a draw here really does not suit Ireland. We have reached the point where must-not-lose firmly becomes must-win. Ireland must beat Sweden.

With Austria expected to lose in Germany on Friday night, the winner of the Ireland-Sweden game will put themselves firmly in pole position for the runners-up slot in Group C. The stage is set and it's now time for Ireland to deliver, players and fans in the Aviva on Friday night, everyone has a role to play if the Boys in Green are to continue on the road to Rio.



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