Midfield will be key battleground for Ireland against Bosnia

Stop Edin Dzeko and you stop Bosnia. That’s the theory anyway, but like a lot of football theories, it is, at best, only part of the story.
Midfield will be key battleground for Ireland against Bosnia

Dzeko does have an impressive scoring record: 44 in 74 international matches puts him ahead of most of the world’s leading strikers. In terms of goals per game, he’s up there with David Villa, Didier Drogba and Ronaldo – the Brazilian one, he’s well ahead of the Portuguese.

Like most prolific strikers, Dzeko has filled his boots against weak opposition, including hat-tricks against Andorra and Liechtenstein. But he has also become Belgium’s bogey with five goals in four World Cup and European qualifiers. He had a great record for Wolfsburg in Germany as well as with Manchester City – for three seasons anyway.

Since his move to Roma in the summer, goals have been harder to come by. His goal against Lazio in Sunday’s derby was only his second in the league so far. It was a penalty, and the foul that led to it was outside the area. He was close to a second but missed by inches.

It was a similar story when Roma lost at Inter 10 days ago. He seemed almost too confident he would score and thus underhit two efforts when he should have made sure.

However Dzeko’s contribution at his new club needs to be measured in more than goals or even goal attempts. He makes space and sets up chances for others and links well with team-mates, notably Roma’s ‘other’ Bosnian, Miralem Pjanic.

It may be Pjanic turns out to be the bigger influence during these play-off games. Playmaker and free-kick specialist, he’s become the midfield linchpin for his club, taking the armband in the absence of the veteran Daniele De Rossi and the even more veteran Francesco Totti.

Statistics show Roma struggle to win without him, and that’s been their problem because he has missed games.

He had to sit out the match against Lazio because of two yellow cards against Inter and has picked up four in 10 games this season. The bad news from Ireland’s point of view is that he should be well rested for these games and he’s been in great scoring form in Europe as well as in Serie A.

In the Bosnian midfield, Pjanic provides the craft, while Senad Lulic, his opposite number for Lazio, does the graft.

Both have their red mist moments. On Sunday, Lulic was very lucky the referee missed a reckless challenge from behind that might well have broken Mohammed Salah’s ankle.

Lulic’s energy and stamina make him a vital element on the left side but his positional discipline is not always the best. Drawn forward, he can leave gaps for opponents. Vedad Ibisevic, Bosnia’s second striker, also has an impulsive streak. He’s been sent off twice for hitting an opponent and was sent off again last month.

Like goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, Ibisevic moved abroad as a child; to the USA in his case, rather than Canada.

Both of them thus have a special status with the fans for choosing to play for the country of their birth and both of them have a lot of experience.

Begovic has played a big part in his country’s recent success but it’s probably fair to say that he’s one of the those goalkeepers who is best described as a good shot-stopper. Unexpectedly he’s been Chelsea’s first-choice keeper this season, and they have been conceding an unexpected number of goals. Most of that is the result of poor defending, and Begovic has saved many more than he’s let in, but he has sometimes looked indecisive on crosses and at set pieces.

In contrast to their Italy-based attack, most of Bosnia’s defenders play in the Bundesliga, led by the veteran Emir Spahic, now at Hamburg after being sacked by Bayer Leverkusen following a fight with some of the club’s stewards that led to a three-month ban.

Defensively they have improved under new coach Mehmet Bazdarevic, but their strength is further forward, as they showed in the 3-2 victory in Cyprus that got them to the play-offs, when Haris Medunjanin – not known for his goals – suddenly produced two out of the blue.

A big factor on Friday is bound to be the home crowd, in Bosnia’s stadium of choice, the Bilino Bolje in Zenica. They have a good record in that stadium over the years, their one major defeat coming against a rampant Spanish side in 2009. Otherwise, matches have been tight. To have the best chance in Dublin, Ireland do have to stop Dzeko – but above all, they need to contain that Bosnian midfield.

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