The Republic have been drawn in Group B alongside Russia, Slovakia, FYR Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra. The first impression – on paper at least – following the draw was one of deflation having avoided such luminaries as Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, England or even France.
Irish media and fan’s desire to meet their gallic neighbours following the \’Hand of Henry’ incident in the recent World Cup play-off took up most of the headlines in the lead up to the draw. Giovanni Trapattoni’s men will instead face a long-haul trip to Moscow to face the top seeded country who surprisingly failed to make it to South Africa 2010.
It is still unconfirmed whether current manager Guus Hiddink will be in charge by the time the Irish come to visit. The highly regarded Dutchman’s managerial credentials are likely to see a return to club football with Turin or even Merseyside a possible destination in the near future.
The Russians possess a wealth of attacking options including Arsenal’s Arshavin and Tottenham’s Pavlyuchenko and their quality should not be underestimated. Their failure to make it to this summer’s World Cup will only add to their determination not to miss a tournament in which they already possess an enviable record.
Eventual champions Spain knocked Russia out of Euro 2008 but up until then the Russians had been one of the star teams of the tournament thanks to Hiddink’s distinctive counter-attacking style. Ireland will do well to get anything from their away trip in Moscow but will fancy their chances back in Dublin before a certain capacity crowd.
The home and away fixtures against Slovakia will ultimately decide Ireland’s fate in qualifying for Euro 2012. The Slovaks have defied the odds to qualify for this summer’s World Cup and will no doubt be anxious to maintain their recent good run at international level once the Euro qualifiers come around.
Marek Hamsik of Napoli is the Slovak’s most potent attacking weapon while Premier League fans will already have seen the likes of Martin Skrtel (Liverpool) and Vladimir Weiss (Bolton Wanderers) in action. Gritty World Cup qualifying victories away to Poland, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic during 2009 suggest the Slovaks will travel to Dublin with little fear of their opposition. The return trip to Bratislava is one Ireland cannot afford to lose if they are to grab at least a runner-up spot. Group B’s remaining participants Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra are fixtures Trapattoni will no doubt be targeting for maximum points both home and away.
One of the biggest dangers with the away fixtures in Group B will be coping with the long-haul travel arrangements. It’s a recurring theme from a group which offers plenty of hope for the Republic but just as many pitfalls.
Expectations to qualify when the Irish begin their 2012 campaign for the first time since that fateful night in Paris will never have been higher. Giovanni Trapatoni will have little scope for error from a media and fan-base demanding nothing but qualification. The Italian will also be expected to add new talent to his current squad during the qualification months in an effort to build towards the next World Cup in 2014. James McCarthy is one player certainly worth looking at but worryingly there is little other young Irish talent coming through the top divisions in England.
Talk of the enforced absences of both Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland is sure to resurface should Ireland’s campaign begin to stutter.
There is a real danger that Irish fans and pundits will underestimate the challenge posed by the likes of Russia and Slovakia simply because the Republic has avoided the bigger names such as Spain and Italy in their bid to qualify for a major soccer tournament for the first time since World Cup 2002.
Group B looks surmountable on paper but the long-haul trips, the bitter cold of Moscow and the emergence of Slovakia suggests Giovanni Trapattoni has it all to do if the Republic of Ireland is to join the party in Poland and the Ukraine in the summer of 2012.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork League junior footballer.