Delusions of adequacy will have us dreaming of group glory until reality’s rude awakening
THE traditional Irish response to major football championship qualifying draws is to observe that the opposition are no great shakes. This conveniently ignores the fact that most of the time we’re not even good shakes.
Ireland have only qualified for two of the last eight major finals yet we persist in the delusion that any team outside the very top echelon of world football represents pretty easy opposition for us. On this occasion this delusion was exacerbated because of the sense that we’d dodged a bullet by avoiding the group with Germany and Holland into which we’d originally been placed.
But the idea that a group containing Switzerland and Denmark represents some kind of golden opportunity flies in the face of reality.
The Swiss may not be the most glamorous team in the world but they’ve reached seven of the last eight major finals. They’ve reached the last 16 of the last three of those finals. That this has been regarded as underachievement on the part of the Swiss while Ireland’s progress to the last 16 of Euro 2016 was seen as a national triumph says a lot about the difference between the teams.
In the Nations League, Switzerland beat Iceland 6-0 and Belgium 5-2, two results which it is impossible to imagine Ireland ever achieving. There is the sense of an improving team approaching a peak. Of the 14 players used against Belgium, all but two are 27 or under.
They might not have any superstars but they have plenty of good players. Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka are much better than anyone we have, Haris Seferovic of Benfica and Steven Zuber of Hoffenheim have both scored in this year’s Champions League which might not sound like much till you consider that no Irish player has even played in the Europa League. Goalkeeper
Yan Sommer, defenders Michael Lang and Nathan Elvedi and midfielder Denis Zakaria are all regulars on the Borussia Monchengladbach team which currently lies second in the Bundesliga and beat Bayern Munich 3-0 away from home.
Switzerland will win the group. Given that under the new qualifying system Ireland are practically guaranteed a play-off place, even if we lose to Georgia our campaign will boil down to a contest with Denmark.
So why the optimism? We know what Denmark can do because they did it to us in Dublin with a World Cup place on the line. Ireland did manage to draw twice against Denmark in the Nations League by defending en masse and hanging on for dear life. We were also aided by the absence of Christian Eriksen for all but 45 of those 180 minutes, a circumstance which is unlikely to be repeated, and by Denmark having qualified before they played us in Copenhagen. The Danes easily won the Nations League group in which we finished bottom and reached the World Cup quarter-finals where Croatia needed penalties to beat them. Yet the general attitude is that they too are there for the taking.
On one level Ireland should qualify for the European Championships. Had 24 teams made it in the past, we’d have reached every finals since 1976. Yet there’s a big gap to be bridged and if Mick McCarthy (pictured) does manage to bring the team through it will represent a considerable feat of management. I suspect the road to qualification for Ireland may well lie through a three-game play-off series.
The near jubilation which greeted the draw occurs because we tend to mentally pit our forthcoming opposition against a Platonic ideal of an Irish team rather than the one which actually exists. It also indicates an ignorance of the current state of European football. Had we been drawn in a group with Holland, or with Italy, it would have been regarded as a massive task. Yet Switzerland are better than both of those teams and Denmark would probably take Italy at the moment.
The highlight of most Irish qualifying campaigns is the draw. At that stage everything is possible and we bang on about the boost which results which have not yet happened represent to the game in this country. Then the games are played and reality sets in. Three times out of four Ireland don’t qualify.
There are people who say you should always be positive about these things. But unearned positivity is the curse of Irish football. What we need is a bit of realism. We could start by giving Switzerland and Denmark a bit more respect. It’s unlikely they’re losing too much sleep over their trips to Dublin.