Euro 2016 – Assessing Ireland’s potential playoff opponents

Defeat to Poland in Warsaw on Sunday confined Ireland to the qualification playoffs for next year’s European Championships, and we now know the four teams that they could face next month.

It’s fair to say that most Irish fans would have been satisfied with third spot when the Group D was made and it’s time to look forward to a process that the nation is all too familiar with.

 

Ireland qualified for Euro 2012 by beating Estonia over two legs, and also overcame Iran to earn a spot at the 2002 World Cup. However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing with losses to the Netherlands, Belgium and France ahead of Euro ’96 and the 1998 and 2010 World Cups respectively.

For Euro 2016, the top two in each group automatically head to France, and they are joined by the top third place team. The remaining eight third place nations will playoff for the final four spots, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Sweden and Ukraine seeded and Ireland, Denmark, Slovenia and Norway unseeded.

Here’s a look at the four teams that the Boys in Green can be paired with when the draw takes place this coming Sunday:

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Current ranking: 30th

Why we want to play them

Their defence is no great shakes, having conceded more goals (12) than any of the other playoff teams. Results against the bottom team in the group don’t count for the playoff rankings, leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina with a goals against average of 1.5 per game compared to Hungary’s 0.63, Sweden’s 0.75 and the Ukraine’s 0.5 from eight games.

Despite being seeded in pot one for the very first time, Bosnia and Herzegovina endured a rollercoaster group stage and finished behind Belgium and Wales. They managed just one point from their opening three games, which included a 2-1 home defeat to Cyprus and a 3-0 hiding by Israel. However, they came good in the second half of the campaign and 15 points from a possible 18 secured a playoff place.

Why we don’t want to play them

The spine of their team is very strong with quality players like Asmir Begovic, Miralem Pjanic and captain Edin Dzeko. The latter bagged seven goals in the group stage and although he can sometimes disappear in games, there is no doubting his pedigree and he has scored 44 times in 74 games for his country.

Throw the likes of striker Vedad Ibisevic and Everton midfielder Muhamed Besic into the mix and coach Mehmed Bazdarevic has a serious amount of talent at his disposal going forward.

 

Hungary

Current ranking: 33rd

Why we want to play them

Probably the team that Ireland would most like to draw given the absence of a genuine superstar, Hungary could only manage third spot in Group F behind surprise winners Northern Ireland and Romania. Without wanting to diminish Northern Ireland’s achievement in any way, if they can pick up four points from six against the Hungarians then Martin O’Neill should have confidence in his side to do the same.

They only managed eleven goals in their ten games played, and three of those came in the final game loss to bottom side Greece. Ireland don’t concede many goals and should have enough to sufficiently nullify the Hungarian attack.

Why we don’t want to play them

Despite not having any real household names, the squad is full of experience with Gabor Kiraly, Roland Juhasz, Vilmos Vanczak, Balazs Dzsudzsak, and Zoltan Gera all boasting over 70 caps. As well Gera and Kiraly, Daniel Tozser, Adam Bogdan and Tamas Priskin all boast Premier League experience, while former Liverpool youngster Krisztian Nemeth is in great form for Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer.

If nothing else, the qualifiers have proved that Hungary know how to grind out a result, and all four of their group wins were by a single goal.

Sweden

Current ranking: 45th

Why we want to play them

Sweden are another side that you would fancy Ireland to score against, especially if the pace of Shane Long is properly utilised. Wins over minnows Moldova and Lichtenstein came with clean sheets but before that they shipped four goals in their own backyard against Austria.

The Swedes look to have settled on most of their defence, with Martin Olsson (Norwich City), Andreas Granqvist (Krasnodar) and Mikael Antonsson (Copenhagen) taking three of the spots for the final four games. Other options include Glasgow Celtic’s Mikael Lustig and West Bromwich Albion’s Jonas Olsson who missed the last two games with a groin injury. Veteran Andreas Isaksson continues to be first choice between the posts.

Why we don’t want to play them

They have Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He may be 34 now but Ibrahimovic is still the team’s talisman and is in superb form at club level, having recently become Paris Saint Germain’s all time top goalscorer. With skipper John O’Shea suspended for the first leg of the playoffs, Ireland’s defence will be understrength and that’s not ideal if you’re up against a player of Ibrahimovic’s ability.

Veteran Kim Kallstrom is a known quantity in the middle of the park, while Sebastian Larsson’s deadball expertise would pose a huge threat. Former Manchester City man John Guidetti looks to have overcome his injury problems and is now pushing for a starting spot at Celta Vigo having been used as a substitute so far this season. He netted his first goal the club in their recent 4-1 hammering of Barcelona in La Liga.

 

Ukraine

Current ranking: 24th

Why we want to play them

Two home defeats for Ukraine against Spain and Slovakia would provide confidence, and Ireland have proven that they are capable of picking up a big result on the road with the last gasp equaliser in Germany last year.

Ukraine’s confidence may also have been dented by the final game defeat to Spain as a win would have put them through to the finals as the best third place finisher. Will they able to pick themselves back up for the playoffs? Probably, but an early first leg goal for Ireland would be sure to ruffle a few feathers.

Why we don’t want to play them

In Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka, Ukraine have a genuine game changer who could cause havoc for Ireland from wide positions. The 25-year-old was linked with a move to the Premier League before opting for Spain, and Ireland would need Seamus Coleman to be on top form to contain him. Andriy Yarmolenko, with an impressive 20 goals in 53 internationals, is another danger man and he was reportedly scouted by Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho during Monday’s game against the Spanish.

A trip to the Ukraine is never ideal in terms of travel involved and the 70,000 capacity NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium, which hosted the final of Euro 2012, would present a much more intimidating atmosphere than, for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Bilino Polje Stadium which holds just 15,600.

The Author

Neil Sherwin

Co-editor of BackPageFootball.com. Writes mostly on Premier League and A-League with contributions to other sites including TheFootballSack, InBedWithMaradona and Bloomberg's BSports. Has featured on The Guardian's Football Weekly.

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