Delu­sions of ad­e­quacy will have us dream­ing of group glory until re­al­ity’s rude awak­en­ing

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

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.

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