If Martin O'Neill's men overcome Serbia in Dublin on Tuesday, they could be in pole position to book a place in Russia
World Cup qualifiers: Republic of Ireland need to call on 'great finishes' of the past if they are to navigate a path to Russia 2018
The Republic of Ireland have been here before. They have been in a congested group, featuring four potential qualifiers. They have used the autumn internationals to give them a springboard to a major tournament. They have done so after recording a famous win over the pool winners.
“We'll think of the nights we've had at the Aviva,” said manager Martin O’Neill. “We beat Germany. We've had great finishes.” If the events of 2015, when victory over the World Cup winners helped take them to Euro 2016, should offer optimism, history may be repeating itself, just without the happy ending.
Two years ago, Ireland beat Georgia, a result that helped them leapfrog local rivals, in Scotland, in the group. On Saturday, they only drew with Georgia. Now they risk being overhauled by their neighbours, in Wales. Or, if they overcome Serbia in Dublin on Tuesday, they could be in pole position to book a place in Russia.
The incentive is apparent for both teams. “If we win then we can potentially top the group,” said Shane Duffy, Ireland’s scorer in Georgia. Serbia forward Aleksandar Mitrovic countered: “We deserve to be in first place and we want to stay there.”
If Ireland could invert their past, so could Serbia. They have been among Europe’s great underachievers in recent years. Now a side who were only the third seeds in Group D could, as they still have a home game against Georgia to come, all but secure their spot in the World Cup. Mitrovic needed no reminding of how significant that would be. “We have not qualified for a major tournament since 2010,” said the Newcastle United forward, who is the pool’s six-goal top scorer.
He is part of a younger generation who allow Serbia to believe they are an improving side. It is harder to make the same claim about Ireland, and not just because seven thirty-somethings featured in Tbilisi. The result was less depressing than the manner of it. O’Neill’s charges had just 31 per cent of possession against team ranked 112th in the world.
It reopened the age-old question if Ireland can formulate and execute a game plan with more sophistication than simply running around without the ball (former manager Giovanni Trapattoni appeared to conclude that they could not).
It is a situation that has turned a 35-year-old midfielder who plays for a side in the Championship relegation zone into a cause celebre. Norwich City’s Wes Hoolahan offers more craft and less graft. His last competitive start came in Ireland’s best result and performance of the group, a 1-0 win away in Austria, but a comparatively immobile player tends to be omitted for the demanding tests.
Ireland will definitely be without the dynamic but injured Jeff Hendrick. The personnel may be the same. They hope the spirit in the stands will also be familiar. “The supporters have been first class,” said Jonathan Walters. “When we get on the front foot they can generate a huge atmosphere.”
Perhaps the fans can make a difference. The sense that the group’s top four teams are evenly matched is shown by the facts that, between them, Serbia, Ireland, Wales and Austria have drawn 14 of their 28 qualifiers. “We are unbeaten in the group,” O’Neill said.
So are Wales and Serbia. But with a trip to Cardiff still to come, another draw is unlikely to be enough; certainly if Ireland want to qualify automatically and possibly if they are to avoid the play-offs that cost them a place in the 1998 and 2010 World Cups.
O’Neill added: “If we win the game we set ourselves up for a grandstand finish.”