Faraway hills happily greener since Euro qualification

What a difference qualification makes. 
Faraway hills happily greener since Euro qualification

Since last Monday week at the Aviva, have you noticed how the wide world of football, when viewed through green-tinted spectacles, suddenly seems like a much more benign, less troubling and even downright attractive place?

Take our old friends Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic for starters. Just a few weeks ago they were regarded in these parts as being about as alluring as the two horsemen of the apocalypse.

Remember the predictive headlines? ‘Pjanic On The Streets Of Dublin’ was the nightmare vision of the Bosnian playmaker and dead ball specialist carving open the Irish defence with his sumptuous passing and breaching the Irish goal with his laser-guided free kicks. And back when we were still fearing the worst, and veritably trembling at the prospect of Ciarán Clark and Richard Keogh trying to contain Bosnia’s ace striker, skipper and all ‘round talisman, there was ‘Irish Primitivism Not In Same Frame As Art Dzeko’. (Well, actually no, there wasn’t — I just made that one up but it’s not bad, eh?).

Still, you get the picture, as it were. And what happened next? Oh, we of little faith. As we can now rejoice in telling and retelling, Pjanic was mainly a disinterested observer in Zenica and, notwithstanding the lifting of the fog, not a whole lot more visible in Dublin, while Dzeko, in contrast to most of his team mates, at least tried his best, even if all he ultimately had to show for his efforts was the consolation goal in Bosnia’s 3-1 aggregate defeat.

And things haven’t gotten a whole lot better for Ireland’s would-be tormentors since. On Tuesday night at the Nou Camp, Pjanic was substituted with 15 minutes still to play while, in the very last act of the game, Dzeko was grabbing yet another consolation goal – if that term can have any meaning at all when applied to a header which entered the net just before the referee blew the final whistle but only after 90 minutes-plus of exquisite torture as Barcelona put six past Roma in the Champions League.

This was a win hard on the heels of an equally devastating performance in the Clasico as Barca crushed Real Madrid 4-0 in front of an aghast Bernabeu, prompting their most bitter rivals to officially start the clock on Rafa Benitez’s departure by announcing, in the time-honoured manner, the gaffer retains the full and unequivocal backing of the club’s hierarchy.

If you missed the Clasico, do yourself a favour and check out the demolition on line – in particular goal number three when, after a trademark extended passage of Barca keep ball, Iniesta suddenly gets on his bike, exchanges a one-two with Neymar – the latter’s return is, of course, a back heel — and without breaking stride lets rip a blistering shot into the top corner of the Madrid goal.

Messi returned from a lengthy injury lay-off late in that game and, by the time his team got around to dismantling Roma, it was like he’d never been away, as he scored twice and, in tandem with Suarez and Neymar, gave the Italian defence a relentlessly torrid night. And not only their defence; when Barca were already five-up one of their players could be seen tracking back the length of the pitch to get a tackle in, as Roma mounted a rare counter-attack.

The tackle, as it happened, was mistimed, the visitors earning a free kick just outside the box which, like most everything else they tried that evening, came to nought. But the fact that it was none other than Messi who’d run half the length of the pitch in a bid to do his defensive duty, told you all you need to know about Barca’s magnificence off the ball as well as on.

And again, for the Irish viewer luxuriating in all this brilliance, there is the added pleasure of knowing we can worship at the altar of Barca and their holy trinity without having to worry about coming up against Uruguay, Brazil or Argentina next summer.

Meanwhile, and much closer to home, the Premier League can look a very different beast bathed in the green light cast by the success of Martin O’Neill’s team.

It’s long been an article of faith for followers of Irish football that, since the highest points of the Jack Charlton era — and increasingly in the years since Mick McCarthy’s success as manager — the national team suffered for a want of players turning out regularly at England’s biggest clubs. And you only have to think of just some names of those who served under Big Jack to know the truth of that proposition: Brady, Keane, McGrath,Whelan, Moran, Stapleton, Aldridge, O’Leary, Houghton et al.

So let’s not lose the run of ourselves. The manner in which they salvaged qualification for Euro 2016 might be a thoroughly praiseworthy achievement by O’Neill and his players, but there’s still no escaping the fact some glaring deficiencies in the available talent pool contributed in large measure to their having to do it the hardest way possible – by beating the world champions and seeing off potentially dangerous opponents in a third place play-off.

Yet when you look the blanks being fired this season by the big guns of the putative ‘greatest league in the world’, you’d be tempted to conclude that the comparative journeymen of the current Irish squad are better off out of it.

There’s Manchester United, still very much in the hunt domestically and in Europe, yes, but going about their business with so much stealth and so little swagger the relationship between van Gaal and the Stretford End is already beginning to resemble that which developed between Trap and the Green Army.

There’s Manchester City, the team which should be England’s answer to Barcelona, but instead frequently come across like Manchester’s answer to Arsenal.

Speaking of whom, I’ve always thought it is much easier to be a fan of the Gunners than a supporter. By which I mean that, for those of us without an emotional involvement in the club, Arsene Wenger’s team are a joy to watch in their pomp but a matter of almost comical distraction when it all goes horribly wrong, as it invariably does. And there’s Chelsea, a frankly bizarre example of a manager and a team surrendering from a position of strength and now engaged in a desperate attempt to regain lost ground.

As for Liverpool, it’s simply too early to say if old Klippity is truly the Messiah for whom the faithful have been praying in the wilderness for so long but as you survey the disarray currently prevailing among England’s elite, you’d have to think that Anfield’s chances of ending that long title drought – and the same might be said of Spurs and Everton – will owe at least as much to the frailties of others as to their own developing strengths.

After all, this is a global mega-league currently topped by perceived relegation bankers Leicester City, whose success is due in large measure to the goals of a 28 year old striker who was playing non-league football a few seasons ago. It might not last, and in all probability it won’t, but right now you don’t even need those green glasses to appreciate the heart-warming spectacle of expert predictions being confounded as the natural order is turned on its head.

Ireland to win the Euros, so.

Now we are going to France, there is the added pleasure of knowing we can worship at the altar of Barca and their holy trinity without having to worry about coming up against Uruguay, Brazil, or Argentina next summer.

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