Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland facing tough hurdles but they are ready for race

Martin O'Neill is looking forward to taking on Scotland
Martin O'Neill is looking forward to taking on Scotland

IF match day is billed as the occasion when the time for talking is over, then the aftermath of an international football qualifying draw is simply just the time for talking.

Generally, it is a day where hope springs eternal, where anything is possible. However, the FAI delegation which left the Cote d'Azur last night gave the impression that they had perhaps expected to leave France feeling a little more optimistic.

The irony of the cast of characters in Group D is that it brings together the Republic and Scotland, two associations that put the idea into Uefa's head that turning Euro 2016 into a 24-team affair was a good idea.

Now they will fight it out in a group where the presence of Germany means that, in reality, they are aiming for one other automatic spot along with Poland with the cushion of at least a play-off for the third-place finisher.

"It's a pretty tough group," said Martin O'Neill, speaking before the new Uefa system laid out the order of fixtures which gives his side three hard away trips – to Georgia, Germany and Scotland – before the end of this year.

"When you consider that we got Georgia in Pot Five, they're probably as strong a team from that pot as you could have got. But I'm genuinely excited by it. This focuses the mind."

Certainly, while the top nations worry about the dilution of the quality and face up to a campaign that could be boring for them and a turn-off for consumers, the Republic anticipate a battle royale.

Unusually, the second September of the road to the Euros, which tends to be crunch time, throws up a relatively straightforward double-header in the form of Gibraltar away and Georgia in the Aviva.

That demonstrates the intensity of the six games beforehand; they will essentially tee up the script for the concluding pair of games, in Dublin against the Germans and another voyage to Poland.

One positive aspect of the format is that the top seeds should already have booked their ticket when Dublin comes around.

"I rate them very highly indeed," said O'Neill, who will travel to watch Germany in Brazil this summer and rates them as one of the favourites to win the competition.

"They have good players and are playing with a bit of verve.

"They are the stand-out team and expected to go and sweep all before them. But at home, if we give a really proper approach, there is no reason why we can't give them a game."

With Irish and Polish football history overlapping again, there's no unknown factor to the identity of the third seeds.

Indeed, while the Republic, Poland and Scotland all finished fourth in their World Cup group, O'Neill pointed out that the team Adam Nawalka inherited were a few missed chances away from toppling England at Wembley in October and barging into the play-off picture.

Scotland, on the other hand, were out of the picture early but took six points from Croatia when Gordon Strachan took control.

"They are improving rapidly under Gordon," said O'Neill.

"He's galvanising them at the moment, he's got a good spirit going and, more than that, they have a few who can play a bit.

"Considering they are down in Pot Four, they'll be happy enough with the way things are going. If they've got everyone fit and ready to go, a lot of them are playing big-time football."

Georgia only scored three goals in World Cup qualifying, but the caveat is that they were part of a five-team group without a minnow that included Spain and France.

They drew with Les Bleus in Tbilisi, while the World and European champions escaped with three points courtesy of an 86th-minute winner from Roberto Soldado.

So the opening qualifier, a Sunday affair in September, will present O'Neill with a very difficult assignment.

By contrast, the presence of Gibraltar adds a touch of novelty value. "Sounds like a great trip, doesn't it?" laughed O'Neill.

Gibraltar don't have an official world ranking yet, but manager Allen Bula thinks they could make history.

"I've said from day one that we haven't just come here to play," he asserted, mastering the bullish tone of these gatherings.

"I've come to a tournament and that tournament is Euro 2016. What I said before is that I want to get to the play-offs and that hasn't changed."

Republic of Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifying fixtures:

Sunday September 7 2014: Georgia (Away); Sunday October 11 2014: Gibraltar (Home); Tuesday October 14 2014: Germany (Away); Friday November 14 2014: Scotland (Away); Sunday March 29 2015: Poland (Home); Saturday June 13 2015: Scotland (Home); Friday September 4 2015: Gibraltar (Away); Monday September 7 2015: Georgia (Home); Thursday October 8 2015: Germany (Home); Sunday October 11 2015: Poland (Away).

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