Crunch Time for Ireland

by Ger McCarthy

Slovakia visit the Aviva Stadium tonight knowing defeat to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland would all but end their interest in qualifying for Euro 2012 writes Ger McCarthy.

Tonight’s crunch 2012 European Championship qualifier between two countries vying for the top spot with Russia in Group B promises to be a tense encounter. Neither side can afford to lose whilst a draw is of little use to the Republic of Ireland unless they can conjure up an unlikely away win in Moscow the following week.

An upturn in form during recent qualifying and friendly internationals bodes well for the Republic who will be without the services of Wigan Athletics’ James McCarthy (unless injury deprives the first team squad of a selected midfielder) who is instead lining out for Noel King’s U21 squad. Crucially for Ireland a home victory over Slovakia this evening and a follow-up defeat to the Russians would still give Trapattoni’s men a realistic chance of securing the runners-up spot in the group. In that instance, Ireland’s head-to-head record against Slovakia would mean consecutive victories over Andorra and Armenia in our final qualifying matches would secure a play-off berth, assuming Russia top the group.

The Slovaks currently sit atop UEFA Group B on 13 points alongside Ireland and Russia having struggled past Andorra in their previous two qualifying fixtures. Back-to-back 1-0 results were achieved at the expense of the plucky Andorrans, first in the Estadi Comunal and then on home soil in the Štadión Pasienky in Bratislava. Neither performance has inspired confidence ahead of the difficult trip to Dublin so Coach Vladimir Weiss will need to call on all his tactical acumen to pull off an away victory.

Recent international friendly performances in a defeat to Denmark and narrow win over a young Austrian side suggest the Slovak Republic is struggling to recapture the form that earned qualification for the World Cup in South Africa back in 2010. Having drawn 1-1 with New Zealand and lost 2-0 to Paraguay Slovakia pulled off one of the shock results of the tournament to defeat Italy 3-2 and take their place in the second round. The Netherlands proved too strong in the last 16 but qualification for South Africa 2010 meant Slovakia entered the 2012 Euro qualifiers with renewed confidence.

The beginning of the European campaign produced two impressive back to back victories at home to FYR Macedonia (1-0) and away to Russia (1-0) in Moscow. All their early good work came undone on October 8th away to Armenia however when Vladimir Weiss’ side lost 3-1 in Yerevan. Four days later the most pivotal fixture of Slovakia’s campaign took place in the Stadio MSK Zilina against the Republic of Ireland. Sean St. Ledger pushed Ireland in front after 16 minutes had elapsed. Slovakia failed to clear Keith Fahey’s initial free kick and St. Ledger pounced in a crowded penalty area to flick the ball home for a 1-0 lead. Late in the opening half another defender, Jan Durica, equalised for the hosts after a Marek Hamsik corner was flicked on to the far post. Ireland wasted a glorious opportunity to grab all 3 points when LA Galaxy’s Robbie Keane saw his penalty saved by goalkeeper Jan Mucha in first half injury time.

Looking ahead to tonight’s encounter an interesting statistic has Slovakia having committed the most fouls in the Group (101) but also having conceded the least amount of goals (4) which suggests Ireland will need to be clinical in the final third of the pitch and take whatever chances may arise. The opening half hour of our away trip to Zilina should be cause for concern for any over-confident Irish fans as Slovakia took full advantage of some slack defending to go close on three seperate occasions before St. Ledger’s opening strike.

The onus will be on Trapattoni’s side to attack from the early stages of the qualifier and take the game to their opponents with home advantage and a probable large crowd in attendance. This scenario has rarely suited an Irish side setup to defend first and counter-attack at the earliest opportunity under their Italian manager’s tutelage. Much of Ireland’s hopes will depend on the form and fitness of Fulham’s Damien Duff and Spartak Moscow’s Aiden McGeady. The two flying wingers are the team’s main suppliers of ammunition to our forwards as central midfielders Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews sit so deep.

The culmination of two years work rests on the result of Friday night’s clash with Slovakia. An opportunity to qualify for next summer’s Poland and Ukraine tournament is within reach in the same fortnight that League of Ireland club Shamrock Rovers has qualified for the group stages of the Europa League. Irish omens are good however as Shane Long deservedly takes his place at the apex of the Irish attack having impressed in his early season games for West Brom. The addition of Stephen Ward in place of the injured Kevin Kilbane does not weaken a strong back four.

Defeat would all but end Trapattoni’s hopes of qualifying for the 2012 European Championships but Irish football is on such a high at the minute that all signs point to a home victory over Slovakia.

Full Republic of Ireland squad: Shay Given, Keiren Westwood, David Forde, John O’Shea, Kevin Foley, Stephen Kelly, Stephen Ward, Richard Dunne, Kevin Kilbane, Sean St. Ledger, Darren O’Dea, Glenn Whelan, Darron Gibson, Keith Andrews, Keith Fahey, Andy Keogh, Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Hunt, Liam Lawrence, Keith Treacy, Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long and Simon Cox.

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