Or so the conventional wisdom has it. Irish squads have been out here in the Algarve twice in the last 10 years for warm-weather training camps, first under Steve Staunton and then Giovanni Trapattoni, and as the sun shines down as usual on late summer holiday-makers, it can be hard to get it into your head — especially given the lowly status of tonight’s opposition in the Estadio Algarve — that this latest excursion to Portugal’s sunny Atlantic coast is anything much more competitive.
Yet, the fact remains the three points at stake here this evening are as valid as any others in European Championship qualifying and, moreover, depending on the results of tonight’s game in tandem with those elsewhere in the group, could even turn out to be of considerable significance in resuscitating Ireland’s chances of making it to the finals in France next year.
Not that anyone is likely to be getting too excited if all goes according to plan, with the rival attractions of the All-Ireland hurling final, the Dublin-Mayo replay and England v Ireland in rugby, set to dominate the sports headlines for the next few days.
Only should Martin O’Neill’s worst nightmare come to pass tonight, in the form of a draw or defeat that would eclipse even Liechtenstein, San Marino and Cyprus in the Irish football hall of infamy, would any game against Gibraltar warrant much more than a statistical footnote.
And the bald stats certainly underline Ireland’s status as raging hot favourites. Along with Andorra, Gibraltar are the only side in European Championship qualifying to have lost all six of their games to date. And their goal difference is by far the worst — 34 against and one for, the latter a little piece of history making by Lee Casciaro when he netted the Rock’s first-ever competitive effort against Scotland in Hampden Park. Mind, the term ‘consolation’ hardly does justice to his heroics, since the Scots eventually ran out 6-1 winners.
Ireland have already gone two better than their Celtic cousins, thumping the minnows 7-0 when they visited Dublin this time last year. Unfortunately, despite the subsequent euphoria of John O’Shea’s late, late equaliser in Germany, the group table now shows that facile victory over Gibraltar was the point at which Ireland’s own stats took a decided turn for the worse — since then, they have failed to win a competitive match and have also conceded a goal a game in three 1-1 draws and that hugely damaging 1-0 defeat away to the Scots.
All of which means Martin O’Neill’s men go into what ought to be a routine assignment playing catch-up in fourth place, two points behind Gordon Strachan’s team, and effectively fighting for their group lives. The picture could be very different by close of play tonight, however, assuming Ireland do the business in Faro, of course, but also in the hope that Georgia turn out to be a banana skin for Scotland in Tbilisi – and since that game kicks off at 5pm, the Irish will know if leapfrogging the Scots into third is the bonus on offer before they kick off against Gibraltar in the Estadio Algarve.
At his pre-match press conference in the stadium yesterday, Martin O’Neill didn’t quite resort to the cliché of there being no such thing as an easy game in international football but he did manage to big up Gibraltar for keeping Germany scoreless for 28 minutes in Faro last June before conceding one before the break and another six in a second-half collapse.
“I thought they played very well and should have equalised after 30 minutes,” he said. “They caused Germany a few problems and then, in the second-half, Germany got a host of goals as a counter-attacking team more than anything. So even the great Germans conceded ground to them. They have improved since the start of the competition, no question.”
And, with caution still his watchword, O’Neill scoffed at any speculation that at the final whistle next Monday night — by which time Ireland will have played Georgia at home and Scotland will have hosted Germany in Glasgow – his side could be above Strachan’s men in the group standings. “There are a couple of games to endure and fight over between now and then,” he said. “I’m not thinking about anything else, something that may or may not happen. We’re not in control of that. We’re only trying to be in control of what’s in front of us.”
What will be in front of them tonight is a fledgling international football team which, according to new manager Jeff Wood, is more concerned about making progress than getting a result. And progress for Gibraltar, he said yesterday, involves “not just looking to defend and keep the score down. We’re looking to post a threat and score goals.”
Skipper Roy Chipolina is one of nine likely starters from domestic club champions Lincoln Red Imps in a side which will have just one full-time pro in Jake Gosling of Bristol Rovers.
“Silly as it might sound,” allowed Chipolina, he reckons Gibraltar played better in their 7-0 defeat to Germany at home than in their previous 4-0 loss in Nuremburg. And he firmly believes the side to face Ireland tonight is better equipped than the one which lost to the Irish just under 12 months ago.
Fans of the Rockies don’t seem to agree.
There could be around 3,000 Irish supporters in the Estadio Algarve this evening but only a couple of hundred from Gibraltar, the lure of a music festival at home — with Kings Of Leon, Duran Duran and Madness among the headliners — apparently proving more irresistible than the prospect of Status Quo in Faro.