At the end of a long, often arduous, domestic season for most of Europe, only in UEFA would it make sense to schedule a run of Euro 2016 qualifiers for this coming weekend, 12-14 June.
Yet so it comes to pass that Ireland and Scotland clash in Dublin this evening with a huge amount at stake in Qualification Group D.
With Scotland two points ahead of the Irish on 10 points after five matches, this game could see one side’s hopes of qualifying for France take a huge hit while the other can continue to dream.
The teams appear to be extremely well matched, with similar profiles and a shared reputation for high work rate and physicality. Their meeting in Glasgow in November last year highlighted these traits in common and was a tight, combative one-nil victory for the Scots.
With this being said, to what can we attribute the gap between the sides in the latest FIFA World Rankings? While hardly a robust metric for serious analysis, broadly we can take some worth from the rankings, especially when there is a gap of 32 places between countries, as there is in this case (Scotland in 28th, Ireland in 60th).
The gap between the sides in the rankings table seems to be reflected in the general mood of supporters in the respective countries, with Scottish football appearing to be undergoing a renaissance, while Ireland struggle with lagging interest and competition from a successful rugby team.
How can two teams who appear to be so similar actually end up at rather different points?
It is remarkable how the journeys of these two teams began in quite similar ways. Gordon Strachan took over the Scotland job in January 2013, charged with rebuilding morale and confidence after an unhappy period under Craig Levein.
In November of the same year, Martin O’Neill joined with Roy Keane to form a management ticket which was to wipe away the lethargy and ambivalence which Trappatoni’s last 18 months in the job had brought.
Both regimes were slow to start. In O’Neill and Keane’s case, this was down to an issue of scheduling, having to wait seven months for a competitive fixture. The initial adrenaline boost of the appointment had worn off slightly.
Strachan’s Scotland won only one of his first five games in charge, losing the other four. Approaching the end of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, it appeared that Scotland were in slight disarray and were as directionless as they had been under Levein.
However, following Strachan’s poor initial run, Scotland have only been beaten three times; by Belgium, England and Germany. In that run of games, they have won nine times (including an impressive win against Croatia, which completed a qualifying double over the Balkan nation) and drew three times, most notably a very creditable point away to Poland in Euro 2016 qualification.
Ireland, in contrast, have won five matches out of a total of 15 under Martin O’Neill, winning twice in five competitive games. Carrying on a tradition formed under Trappatoni, Ireland continue to draw a large number of matches, especially against teams of similar ability to themselves.
In O’Neill’s time in charge, there have been six draws, including an impressive point away to Germany, but also a limp performance at home to Poland last time out.
Both teams are very similar in squad profile, with neither drawing players from the top table of British football, as was once the case. The majority of both teams are made up of bottom half Premier League players, as well as players from the Championship and, in Scotland’s case, the Scottish Premiership.
Neither side has a stand out star man around whom a side can be built. They are more of a collective, teams born of hard work and, to quote John Giles, “honesty of effort”. Both teams draw perhaps their best players from Everton; Steven Naismith for Scotland, and James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman for Ireland.
As was evidenced by the game in Glasgow in November, neither side is afraid to engage in a physical battle and perhaps we can expect more of the same in Dublin on Saturday. What was notable, however, from that first meeting was Scotland’s greater self control in terms of discipline.
Ireland crunched into tackle after tackle, looking to set a tone and lay down a marker for the game. Scotland, while never shirking a tackle, had a greater focus on playing their usual game and eventually worked a magnificent goal to win the game.
For two sides who on paper appear very similar, the contrast in their approach to games is striking. Ireland yet to appear to have found their identity under Martin O’Neill, no pattern has developed through this qualification campaign which maps out a clear approach.
Strachan’s Scotland, however, seem to be much more settled in themselves. The benefit of Strachan coming in during the previous qualifying campaign is clear. Straight away he was working with the group for important and meaningful games and this allowed an identity to emerge within the squad.
Wins against Croatia in the World Cup qualification campaign provided a launching pad to work from for the players and boosted supporters.
Ireland achieved what could have been a similar platform-building result in their draw with Germany but followed that up with defeat in Glasgow. As such, the squad are still searching for that meaningful win that pulls them together, still looking for a yardstick by which they can measure their progress.
These two sides seem so similar from a distance but up close, we see they are quite far apart. It may be too simplistic to say but winning games has helped provide this Scotland side with an identity. Ireland, who do not win many important games, still lack one.
This evening’s game may go a long way to deciding who will continue to challenge for second and third in Group D and who faces four months of dragged out, painful games.
It will bring together a Scotland side full of confidence instilled in them by winning games with a manager who extenuates the positives in their games and an Ireland team too used to drawing big games with a manager still seemingly finding his way into the job 18 months after being appointed. It will be tight and tense and very hard fought and possibly too close to call.
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