One chapter ends and another begins for Irish football. Russia 2018 beckons and we can be sure the English media wet dream to rob Russia of the World Cup will be forgotten now they’re in Brexit chaos.
After a good showing in France, Ireland will begin the quest for a World Cup spot in September with a lot of hope and expectancy.
Last July, I gave a very brief rundown on the circus surrounding the World Cup and our opponents. Now that the Euros are out of the way, we can finally assess our own side and those we’ll face in qualifying.
I felt then that we’d be fighting for top spot and I feel even more confident given the spirit instilled in our players despite the worst intentions of our media. So what about the Boys in Green? Who will get us to Russia?
Without a World Cup since 2002, Russia 2018 is our destiny. Robbed of a place in 2009 and disappointing for 2014, Martin O’Neill’s squad will thin a little before filling out with new hopefuls.
Martin O’Neill has built on the work of Trappatoni and has a good mix of veterans and youngbloods.
Russia 2018 – The Ireland squad
Shay Given and David Forde gone and Keiren Westwood will be a steady back-up. Darren Randolph is beginning to peak but needs to get away from West Ham. He’s well worth a Premier League place or even a job abroad, although he’s young, a persistent rumour of MLS could do him good.
Stephen Henderson will need to be outstanding for Charlton, though Rob Elliott is still good enough to push Randolph. There are decent young keepers coming through such as Man City’s Ian Lawlor and Aberdeen’s Danny Rogers, though they’re another two years at least from being serious contenders.
As it stands, the job is Darren Randolph’s to lose.
If John O’Shea goes it will not be the end of days for Ireland. He has been a loyal servant for Ireland and should not be remembered for these Euros.
From budding star Robbie Brady and Game of Thrones wannabe Shane Duffy, through inspirational Seamus Coleman and influential Marc Wilson, to League of Ireland product Stephen Ward and underrated Richard Keogh, there is enough to work with.
Add in Cyrus Christie and Greg Cunningham and we’ve real competition for places. Martin Keown’s son Niall might get a squad spot, though much like Lawlor and Rogers, still a couple of years away from relevance.
Wes Hoolahan succeeded on stamping his brand of impish play on the main stage, though he showed the reason why he was never picked up by a top English or Continental side in the Belgian loss.
Wes, according to Ollie Byrne, could have great days and yet be the invisible man. Now 34 he’ll be fit enough to perform, though needs a new club, preferably in Germany.
Jeff Hendrick was rated by Russian journalists as one of the best midfielders in France. He should get a big move, along with Robbie Brady, and strut his stuff at Russia 2018.
Aiden McGeady didn’t do himself justice and will drop down the pecking order.
Criticism of James McCarthy was muted after Italy and along with James McClean will be big players for these qualifiers. Glenn Whelan has now become a squad player but can be trusted to bring intensity whenever he plays.
There are some real gems in the Irish set-up with Harry Arter, Chris Forrester, Richie Towell and Jack Byrne all worth a run out in this cycle.
It would be great to have Robbie Keane hit 150 caps and bag a couple of goals, though sentimentality has no place in sport.
Daryl Murphy might also go, despite proving himself a warrior in France, and Kevin Doyle will not see Russia 2018. Jon Walters will see the World Cup as his swansong and Shane Long will be well up for at least four more years.
But what else is there in the cupboard?
Given that forwards, by dint of their position and role, can have hot streaks, there is always a chance for David McGoldrick, Anthony Stokes or Adam Rooney to press a claim to be Shane’s partner.
Though maybe this might be a good time to give a League of Ireland player more than just a token run out.
Youngsters like Mikey Drennan and Sean Maguire are as good as any of the young pretenders playing in the lower reaches of the English leagues.
Russia 2018 – Opponents
Austria will keep the main body of their under-achieving squad together with Fuchs, Harnik, Janko and Arnautovic desperate to erase their recent nightmare.
Any team with David Alaba is dangerous, though with a few injuries Austria don’t have equal replacements coming through. This could be when Austria disappears into a decade of rebuilding.
Their Swiss manager, Marcel Koller, is under pressure and has been failed by their development system. Ireland should pick up at least pick up two points, or possibly four.
Serbia have “wily” Slavoljub Muslin in charge. Having dealt with the man here in Russia, wily is mild for how I’d describe him. Serbia would love to qualify for Russia 2018 for a number of reasons.
A major one is the Orthodox fraternity thing, which Greece and half of Cyprus will be considering. Though if Dick Advocaat was unable to get Serbia performing, Slavoljub surely won’t.
This is a developmental Serbia and they will be contenders in 2020, meaning Ireland should travel to Belgrade in September looking for a four point total from both games.
Moldova’s Igor Dobrovolski was once one of the most exciting young players in Europe. Of ex-USSR players whose talents were least realised in the early-90’s, Igor ranks right up there.
Part of the Bernard Capie’s League and European Cup winning Marseilles, his inner demons never left him in peace long enough (apart from a three-season spell in Germany).
As a coach he has been a success in Moldova and cheated on in Russia, though for the national team he knows he has a major task.
Solid keeper Ilie Cebanu, impressive defender Igor Armas and International class midfielder Artur Ionita aside, Igor knows his team will be scrapping with Georgia for the wooden spoon. Six points are a must from our matches with Moldova.
Georgia must hate Ireland, seriously. How many more times must they have to endure bad ref calls, McGeady magic and trips to Temple Bar?
Highly-rated Slovakian coach Vladimir Weiss has come from Kazakh club football to do something that none of his predecessors have managed – make the most of Georgia’s talented players.
Beating Spain, in Spain, laid a marker for what he expects. No more booze cruises in Malta and nighttime escapades in Leipzig, Weiss expects to push for second place.
Quality players like defender Solomon Kvirkvelia, midfielder Jano Ananidze and wunderkind striker Nika Kacharava will make life tough for all opponents. Ireland again need to get 6 points from the two meetings, though four might be more realistic.
Wales, how they tore Russia apart and how unlucky against England and how lucky against Northern Ireland. They’re more than a one man band – Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen have shown real quality in France.
Yet Ireland won’t fear them. A 5-3-5 split between the teams will not worry Ireland.
Wales are more worried about Georgia, whom they’ve lost to three times in three games. Or Austria, against whom they’ve lost five of eight. Or Serbia, zero for four. Wales will do well against Belgium, though they will falter in autumn 2017 by dropping much needed points in the former-USSR. reland should expect at least three points from the Welsh clashes.
Russia 2018 – A rocky road?
No. It shouldn’t be. Ireland have enough quality and depth to take on a developing Serbia, ambitious Georgia and faltering Austria.
Likewise the Welsh resistance will peter out on foreign fields and Moldova are far too chaotic to be a 90-minute team.
In a group primed for upsets and odd results, 23 points should win the Group and 16/17 could be second
With 12 points from 12 against Georgia and Moldova, not losing to Austria is vital. Serbia will blow up, as will Wales, and calm heads against both those sides will deliver Irish fans to bring the squares and boulevards of Ekaterinaburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Kazan to life.
The Russian media and population want us here, now it’s up to Martin, Roy and the boys to get the job done.