Friday, January 27, 2006

Group D Provides Opportunity for Stan 'n' Bob

Euro 2008 Qualification - Group D
Czech Republic
San Marino

Not the absolute best we could have hoped for, but far from the worst. A quick glance over our shoulders at Group B and the fate of our 4th Seed companions, Scotland, should put perspective on this draw. Poor old Scotland, their draw - France, Italy, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and the Faroe Islands - is almost staggering in its difficulty and could prove the biggest check on their ambitions since Edward Longshanks. Even the weakest team, the Faroes, hold nightmarish memories for the Scots.

England have their customary soft looking draw, with Russia and Croatia looking more awkward than outstanding in Group B, and Northern Ireland will return to their perpetual demoralising cycle of beatings from the likes of Spain and Denmark, never mind Sweden, in Group D.

Ireland's group can be classed as of medium difficulty, and looking at it optimistically, we should be competing with the Germans for second place, and at least clambering over Slovakia into third. That is supposing that the new management team manufactures an improvement in spirit after the meekness of the Brian Kerr era, from what looks as flimsy and callow a squad as Ireland have had in a long time.

One thing noticeable is, Cyprus apart, the lack of recent history in this group; thankfully no Switzerland this time, or troublesome trips to Macedonia, and also the happy absence of journeys into the heart of Asia, with Nicosia the furthest destination for the boys in green.

So what of the nations that provide the obstacles in Stan 'n' Bob's excellent adventure?

The top seeds have been one of Europe's top sides for several years now, beneficiaries of a golden generation of their own in the form of players like Pavel Nedved, Jan Koller, Karel Poborsky and Tomas Rosicky, accompanied more recently by Milan Baros, Jiri Jarosik and Petr Cech. However Nedved is likely to retire from international football after World Cup 2006, and the next generation lacks the pedigree of the previous one.

WC? Toiled past Norway in the play-offs, lost home and away to Holland, and away to Romania in the group, so maybe not as formidable as they once were.

Previous? Not much, a late Robbie Keane goal gave Ireland a 2-1 friendly victory two years ago as the Czech's warmed up for Euro 2004. In competitive terms you have to go back to 1969 when Czechoslovakia defeated us home and away in qualifying for Mexico 1970. (Ireland finished bottom of a four team group incidentally - have we found our level again?)

Skopje or Stuttgart? Ranked second in the world, but as good as they used to be. Still too strong, athletic and talented for us, and should be group winners

The great football cliche referring to the folly of writing off the Germans has taken something battering in recent years, as Germany endures a prolonged period of international mediocrity. After somehow spawning their way to the World Cup Final in 2002, their true worth was evident in their dismal Euro 2004 when they were eliminated at the group stage. Still, its all relative, and their demise is only from the status of football superpower - they will still feel superiority over little old Ireland. Will rely on Michael Ballack, Kevin Kuranyi, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, but still have too many uninspiring names in their ranks for a German national team.

WC? Hosts - could be on a roll from the national high of hosting a tournament when we meet them, or in depression following an humiliating exit.

Previous? That night in Ibaraki in 2002 is about it. A friendly win in 1994 before that. Apart from the whole gun running epsiode in 1916.

Skopje or Stuttgart? We should be able to compete with them, but they always qualify for tournaments and it is presumably hard-coded into their psyche to dispose of plucky upstarts like us. Just ask Poland. (enough historical references already - ed.)

The relative optimism at our draw pre-supposes that we will be able to take care of Slovakia, namely because we don't know much about them and so they can't be much cop. Well, they're ahead of us in the seedings, ergo, they are better than us. On the face of it, however, our confidence is understandable, given that Middlesbrough malingerer Szilard Nemeth and Robert Vittek and Marek Mintal of FC Nuremberg appear to be their main men.

WC? Hammered by Spain 6-2 on aggregate in the play-offs, after admirably holding of Russia for second place in their group. Like ourselves were draw specialists, tieing five times, suggesting stodginess rather than sleekness.

Previous? Zilch. See Czechoslovakia 1969, if you like.

Skopje or Stuttgart? If the new regime is to achieve anything in this campaign we must out this lot behind us comfortably, but could be just the sort of sticky opponent to undermine the fledgling regime.

Ideally you want to avoid these local affairs, as they tend to exacerbate the jingoism factor at the expense of footballing merit. Ireland and Wales won't be too testy however and the principality will be a good indicator of our progress. Have plenty of attacking talent among messrs Giggs, Bellamy, Hartson, and Earnshaw, but the quality drops off dramatically further back with the numbers being made up from the lower English leagues - and have been noticeably limp since John Toshack took over.

WC? Hugely disappointing fifth in group 6, especially the fact that they were beaten for fifth by Northern Ireland.

Previous? Little again, apart from a cold afternoon in March 1986....

Skopje or Stuttgart? Have enough to trouble us, and will be up for it at the Millenium, but lack sufficient quality to be anything other than a potential nuisance.

One for the fans: handy points, and work in a week in the sun around the away trip. Lovely. Thats the plan anyway, but last October we used up all our fortune to wrest a point from Nicosia.

WC? Didn't let any easy points leave the island, but a total of four points overall shows they remain minnows. A 2-2 draw at home against the Faroes puts Ireland's toil in October into perspective.

Previous? See above, also Roy Keane's rousing performance in 2001 to awaken a somnambulant Ireland in a 4-1 victory.

Skopje or Stuttgart? Again, the FAI's big gamble would want to be going seriously awry not to take six points from Cyprus.

Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. There are easy games in international football.

WC? Played 10 Won 0 Drew 0 Lost 10 Goals For 2 Goals Against 40. Nuff said.

Previous? None

Skopje or Stuttgart? Won't be filling Croker for this one.


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