Ireland have been handed a difficult but not impossible task after being drawn in Qualification Group D for Euro 2016.
With Germany top seeds in the group, Ireland have to face Joachim Loew’s side for the second qualification campaign in a row. Ranked second in the world, the Germans inflicted a 9-1 aggregate defeat on the Boys in Green on their march to Brazil 2014.
Theoretically fighting with Ireland for the remaining automatic qualification spot and play-off place are Scotland and Poland.
Propping up the table, (barring disaster for the teams mentioned above) should be Georgia and Gibraltar. Gibraltar only attained international status in May of last year. Georgia, in its 20 years of playing competitive international football, has finished 6th in qualification groups more often than not. Ireland put four past them last June in an Aviva friendly.
With the talent at Jogi Loew’s disposal, it is difficult to see how Germany could drop points, let alone fail to finish top of the group. A team with a mix of youth and experience, and a spine consisting of players from Bayern Munich’s treble winning side and Borussia Dortmund, should take this group at a canter. It is difficult to select the key player for the Germans, because as soon as the focus shifts to one Wunderkind another one overtakes him.
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Mercurial talents such as Marco Reus and Mezut Ozil offer potency in attack, while a midfield consisting of Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze Sami Khedira and Phillip Lahm (if played there) won’t be overrun too often. At the back, Mats Hummels is an extremely intelligent centre-half alongside a resurgent Per Mertesacker. If they have shown any weakness in the recent past it was when they switched off at 4-0 up against Sweden in the last qualification campaign and ended up shipping 4 goals and two points in the process. While there is a possibility of them scoring four against Ireland, Scotland or Poland, it is unlikely they will capitulate and concede four again.
Of the teams challenging for second and third in the group, on paper Poland would seem to have the advantage. Their star striker Robert Lewandowski plays Champions League football with Borussia Dortmund and will move to the all-conquering Bayern Munich in the summer. Polish captain Jacub Blaszczykowski also plies his trade at Dortmund. However Poland have never beaten Germany in 17 attempts. Most recently they played out a two-all draw in September 2011. Outside of their Champions League stars, their line-up is solid if not spectacular. They finished 4th in the qualifying campaign for this year’s World Cup after a promising start.
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Scotland under Gordon Strachan are slowly growing in confidence. Early losses during his reign put paid to any qualification hopes for Brazil, but wins in the meantime against Croatia and Macedonia indicate the former Celtic manager has bedded in well. The clashes against another former Celtic boss in Martin O’Neill will go a long way to determine the final positions of both Ireland and Scotland in the table. You can bet either O’Neill or his assistant Roy Keane will watch and rewatch the video of Scotland’s friendly trip to Poland next Wednesday.
And what of the dark horsemeat of the group, Gibraltar? They have a fairly decent record having drawn with Slovakia in their first ever UEFA recognised game last November. It ended nil-all so it’s difficult to make out where their goals will come from as yet. Maybe former Derby County, Sunderland and Stoke central defender Danny Higginbotham? Though he has said he will retire soon so may not even be in the squad come the beginning of the qualifying campaign. Like all teams who Ireland play, they should be treated respect (Cyprus and San Marino spring to mind), but 6 points are an absolute necessity for O’Neill’s men.
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And what of Ireland themselves? Can we compete with Poland and Scotland? Irish fans would hope so, while Roy Keane would probably question why we can’t take six points off of Germany as well. This attitude is sure to serve the Boys in Green better than Trappatoni’s thinking that our team wasn’t good enough to play football against the big boys. With four potential Irish starters at a well managed Everton under Roberto Martinez, the hope is that there is a strong core in the immediate and long-term future of the Ireland team. The question of where Ireland’s goals will come from is pertinent, but hopefully Paul Green will chip in with a few.
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Ireland finish the qualifying campaign with games at home to Germany and away to Poland. Whatever about the Germany game, the Poland tie could be crucial in deciding the fate of both teams involved and Scotland. It’s the same day Ireland take on France in the Rugby World Cup. Some days Ireland’s sports stars take on the world and win. 21st of March 2009. Ireland beat Wales in Cardiff to claim their first Grand Slam since 1948. Later that night in the O2 Arena, Bernard Dunne knocks Ricardo Cordoba out in the 11th round to claim the WBA Super-Bantamweight world championship. A glorious day. All of Ireland rejoiced. Perhaps the 11th of October 2015 will be such a day.