With the draw for the World Cup playoffs to be made tomorrow, Michael Donnelly takes a look at Ireland’s potential opponents.
So after 900 minutes, 20 goals (12 for and 8 against) and a never ending argument about a certain midfielder, we find ourselves in a position that was hard to believe could be achieved considering our last campaign.
Second place in a group which contained the world champions, a couple of tricky eastern European teams and of course, our old nemesis, Cyprus.
While the second place finish was no mean achievement there is still one more bridge to cross if we are to reach the promised land of South Africa in 2010 – the dreaded playoffs.
Any Ireland fan old enough to remember the name Bernie Slaven will know our record in playoffs against European competition does not make for pretty reading. Standing in our way this time around is one from a group of Russia, France, Portugal and Greece. If we take a closer look at these four teams we’ll see that the hard work has really just begun.
France finished second in a group which most seasoned observers would have expected them to top. Sluggish performances away to Austria and Romania left them chasing early pacesetters Serbia, while the eccentric antics of head coach Raymond Domenech, including some bizarre team selections, didn’t do much to instil confidence in his players. Nonetheless, any team containing Henry, Benzema and Malouda should be considered formidable and it would be a major surprise not to see Les Bleus at next year’s tournament.
As a footballing nation Russia have made massive strides over the past decade and indeed were many pundits dark horses for Euro 2008. Two defeats to Germany in their otherwise weak qualifying group ended any hopes they had of topping Group Four but they would still fancy their chances of making it to South Africa via the playoffs, especially as they know that no nation would fancy playing in Moscow during their notoriously harsh winter season.
Having performed disastrously at the defence of their European Championship crown in Euro 2008, Greece football picked itself back up to battle through a tough qualifying group and finished a single point behind Switzerland. Greece no longer has that unknown quantity they possessed before their sensational triumph in 2004 but their manager Otto Rehhagel and his core squad still remain and they’ll be quietly confident of spending next summer residing in South Africa as one of the 32 nations who have qualified.
Portugal has Denmark to thank for their appearance in the playoffs. The Danes beat their Scandinavian rivals Sweden in the penultimate round of games in Group One, leaving Portugal needing to beat Malta at home in the final round to pip the Swedes to second place, behind the already qualified Danish. The Portuguese duly obliged, thrashing hapless Malta 4-0 and leaving Henrik Larsson and co. wondering what might have been. Like the French, Portugal have many potential match winners in their team and it would be foolhardy to suggest that Ronaldo, Nani and Pepe won’t be strutting their stuff on the world’s biggest stage next year.
Our opposition will be revealed on Monday and it will be at that exact moment that Trapattoni, Tardelli and Brady will get to work, trying to pinpoint a weakness in one of Europe’s top teams, one that can be exploited by our own limited one. It is a task which not many would envy but one in which Irish football fans will be thankful for the opportunity.
The draw for the European playoffs will take place tomorrow afternoon at 1pm Irish time.