With Ireland’s season ending with a spirited performance but disappointing 2-0 defeat to reigning World and double European Champions Spain, we now have nearly three months to analyse the various permutations and combinations of results in the remaining group games to see how Ireland might sneak into that coveted second spot in the group to (hopefully) earn a play-off – I say hopefully, because of the nine second-placed teams, only eight will qualify for the play-offs.
As it currently stands in the race for second place in our group, Austria, Sweden and Ireland are level on 11 points but Austria lead the way with a goal difference of +10, Sweden follow with +4 and Ireland are in fourth place with +2. Given Austria still have a match against the whipping boys of the group, The Faroe Islands, to come, and that they are a team much more capable of scoring goals than this Ireland team – demonstrated by their 6-0 thrashing of the Faroes last March, it is reasonable to expect that Ireland will have to beat Austria and Sweden on points to get into second place. Sweden laboured to a 2-0 win against the Faroes last night and although they dominated possession against Ireland in Stockholm, they look beatable. So while there is hope for the home match against them in September, it’s worth remembering that under Trapattoni, Ireland failed to register a home win against similarly-seeded teams such as Bulgaria and Slovakia in previous campaigns. A victory over the Swedes would certainly send Ireland into their crunch away match against Austria in high spirits. But again, Ireland’s record away from home doesn’t bode well if only a victory away to Austria will do. While Trap is unbeaten away from home in competitive fixtures, he has also failed to record a competitive win against decent opposition away from home, a run which goes all the way back to Ireland’s victory in Scotland under Jack Charlton on the road to Euro ’88! Admittedly, I’m pessimistic, but I hope my pessimism is misplaced!
On the homefront, Pat’s are leading the way at the top of the Airtricity Premier Division. They have hit a real purple patch, are playing some fantastic passing football, are scoring freely and have won 10 and drawn three of their last 13 league games. Reigning champions Sligo Rovers are struggling to score at the moment and have slipped to third in the table behind Derry while Dundalk under Stephen Kenny have maintained their early season form to sit comfortably in fourth place above draw specialists Shamrock whose most recent draw came courtesy of the concession of a deserved injury-time equaliser from arch-rivals and relegation-battlers Bohemians. Approaching the half-way point in the First Division, Longford Town lead by nine points and are looking good for a return to the Premier Division while it looks like there is a tight battle in store between Mervue United, Athlone Town, Finn Harps, Wexford Youths and Waterford United for second spot and a place in the promotion/relegation play-off.
The Lions have got off to a great start on their tour of Australia with four victories out of four and the Irish contributing well with tries from O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Sexton, Heaslip, Bowe, Murray and O’Brien. But it remains to be seen if these matches are of sufficient intensity to prepare them for the upcoming tests against the Aussies.
To finish off, hats off to Rafa Nadal on his eighth French Open title, to Tallaght-men Jason Byrne for his four goals for Bray Wanderers against U.C.D. which took him past the 200-goal mark in his career, and his cousin Robbie Keane who broke his own goal-scoring record three times in the same game against the Faroes last Friday! He has his critics but I can’t see any worthwhile argument against 59 goals in 127 internationals. Competitive goals against France, Spain, Russia, The Netherlands, Italy and that unforgettable injury-time equaliser against Germany in 2002 say all that needs to be said.
And who can believe it’s twenty-five years ago today since this?!!