When Russia visit the Aviva Stadium tomorrow to take on the boys in green, it will give Giovanni Trapattoni’s army a chance to end an unwelcome nine year run. Since beating the Netherlands on that majestic day in early September 2001 in the old Lansdowne, Ireland have failed to win against any of the so called “bigger” nations of European and world football, in 17 competitive attempts. While Russia may not exactly be up there with the most glamorous or illustrious of opponents, they still represent a force of international football. It is a force however that Ireland need to and can certainly tame.
When the draw was made for Poland/Ukraine 2012 last winter in Warsaw, Russia were ranked amongst the top eight teams in Europe and so, took the status as the group’s top seeds. Some may argue that Slovakia’s impressive performance in the World Cup, together with an eye catching win in Moscow last month that has seen them overtake the Russians in the current FIFA world rankings, now sees them represent Ireland’s greatest challenge. Indeed, Slovakia now occupy the slot that Russia had prior to the World Cup, 16th in the world, a jump of 11 places, with the Russians down nine places to 25th. Ireland lie eight spots behind in 33rd position.
The importance of a win tomorrow night, and indeed again on Tuesday, cannot be underestimated. Six points from those two games would not only cement one foot in at least a play off for the competition, but also, in the event of us needing that route, provide Ireland with vital ranking points for getting the best draw possible. It is quite conceivable that beating Russia tomorrow and avoiding defeat in Moscow would not only see Ireland finish ahead of the Russians in the group, but overtake them in the rankings.
Since 2002 however it has been a tale of one sad story after another, much of this down to Ireland’s failure to win the games that matter; the games against the other teams battling for qualification. Failing to get a single win from four games against Italy and Bulgaria in the last qualifying group ultimately cost Ireland dearly on the road to South Africa. All four games were there for the taking and a team with a more jugular instinct could have come away with 12 points.
That fact however appears to be lost on Trapattoni, who will no doubt adapt the same cautious approach that he has taken in his 12 previous qualifying games. His staunchest of followers will argue that it is 12 games unbeaten at this stage, though the purists will point to the fact that Ireland are capable of more, as was shown when the shackles were released on that fateful and painful night in Paris. One would assume that his target is very much eight points from the four games against the top two seeds, however given Slovakia’s result in Moscow, we may need more.
Is it possible? Yes of course it is, there were so many positives apart from the obvious, in Saint-Denis on November 18th last. That night we saw an Ireland play like the Ireland of old, a team full of aggression, desire and above all else, product. A win tomorrow night would also set the team up perfectly for what is a daunting trip to Zilina on Tuesday. Until we beat the higher ranked teams we will remain a nation of nearly men, but tomorrow night is the perfect chance to begin to put that right.
1 – Ireland 1 v 2 France (18th November 2009)
One of the most heartbreaking defeats in the history of Irish sports. Technically in a 90 minute game we went to France and won but that doesn’t make the fact that France still went through 2-1 on aggregate any better. The reality here is that this France team was a pale shadow of former glories, a team of selfish, unpatriotic mogs who had very little passion in playing this game. They were there for the taking and despite the ‘Hand of Frog’, the reality is that it wasn’t Martin Hansson, Henry or Gallas that cost us a place in the World Cup. It was the inability to put away four simple chances or beat an in-form Hugo Lloris more than once.
2 – Ireland 2 v 2 Italy (10th October 2009)
This was as close as it will come to us ever beating the current World Champions in Dublin. A carnival atmosphere at Croke Park and Ireland led twice. A last gasp header from Sean St Ledger appeared to have given Ireland a famous win and send the qualification decider down to the last game, but Italy scored with seconds remaining to ruin the party. This was agonising to the core!
3 – Ireland 0 v 0 France (9th October 2004)
This was one of the great, great days in Irish sport, not so much on the field but off it. 40,000 plus fans packed the State De France and made it a virtual home game in the largest ever travelling support for a game on the continent. A resolute Ireland stood firm against a team packed with World Cup and Euro winners and were it not for John O’ Shea’s late miss, which went inches past a post, Ireland would have been celebrating an historic result.
4 – Ireland 0 v 0 Germany (13th October 2007)
The “gaffer” era. We had little to cheer about back then in what was the lowest point in Irish football for many years. In the same campaign that saw Ireland stuffed in Cyprus and also beaten in Stuttgart and Prague, a saving grace would have been beating the Germans in Croke Park. Robbie Keane missed a late sitter, and I mean a sitter, to send the Germans through and leave Ireland still waiting for a long overdue victory against football’s elite. This was another one that got away.
5 – Ireland 1 v 1 Czech Republic (11th October 2006)
Last thing you want after a 5-2 hammering away to lowly Cyprus is one of the top teams in Europe at the time coming to town. However, the Lansdowne Roar reached a new echelon and the team almost most pulled off the most unlikely of results. With one of the best ever atmospheres at an Irish home game, Ireland took the lead through Kevin Kilbane only for the pandemonium to die down two minutes later when Koller equalised. The Czechs held on for a point and while the men who shamed a nation four days earlier restored some pride, though the repercussions of the Nicosia Nightmare still ruled the roost for a long time after.