ROY KEANE believes Giovanni Trapattoni will be ‘rubbing his hands’ in anticipation after the draw for the 2012 European Championship qualifying groups presented Ireland with a realistic chance of reaching the finals in Poland and the Ukraine.
And Irish hopes have been boosted by the strongest signs yet from Moscow that Russian manager Guus Hiddink will not still be at the national helm by the time Group B kicks off in September.
Trapattoni’s side face Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra, and while Keane reckons it’s a difficult draw he also thinks that, on the back of a positive World Cup campaign, Ireland are entitled to relish the challenge.
“It’s another tough draw,” said the Ipswich boss. “But it’s as you’d expect if you don’t qualify for tournaments – the seeding becomes harder. But if you look at the manager they’ve got, he’s a top, top manager and I think they were very unlucky in terms of the last campaign. I think he’ll be rubbing hands, he’ll be looking forward to it.
“Hopefully the players will have learnt from the last campaign and I think they have a decent chance.”
The former Irish skipper believes Ireland are capable of giving some of the best in the world a game: “People talk about the Russias in the group or whoever, but Ireland on their day can compete with a lot of the top nations, as they showed against Italy and France in the last campaign.”
The group sees Ireland again face Macedonia, whose last-minute equaliser in Skopje denied Mick McCarthy’s side an automatic qualification place for Euro 2000. Keane missed that match through injury but says the upcoming games against the Macedonians could give the current squad the chance to lay to rest a few ghosts.
“Possibly so, but that’s what football does to you,” he said. “It was one of many disappointments (in my career). Football’s not all full of highs. There are more disappointments than highs and the players now have the chance to put that right.”
Indeed, Ireland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2012 look set to be boosted by the departure of coach Guus Hiddink in the summer, after Sergei Fursenko was appointed the new Russian FA president.
Fursenko had lunch with Hiddink last Thursday and it must have been a tense affair if their post-prandial comments were anything to go by. “We did not discuss my future with the national team,” said Hiddink. “My contract is up in July and I will concentrate on the team until then with pleasure.”
For his part, Fursenko hardly gave a ringing endorsement of the coach who failed to qualify the team for this summer’s World Cup.
“There is no need to hurry with any of this,” he said. “For the moment Hiddink has a contract with us. He is obliged to fulfil it. And in the time before this agreement ends, we will decide what happens next.”
Hiddink has been linked to a succession of national coaching jobs, including Nigeria, China, Morocco and Turkey. Fursenko was appointed to the presidential post last week after beating his nearest rival, the businessman Alisher Aminov, by 95 votes to 11, in a secret ballot. As a former general manager of Zenit St Petersburg, and with influential allies in the Russian government, Fursenko is expected to dispense with Hiddink’s services, and the largesse of Roman Abramovich, who has bankrolled Hiddink’s £5m (€5.7m) salary. The Dutchman’s current assistant coach, Alexander Borodyuk, is among the favourites to take over, while Leonid Slutsky, of CSKA Moscow, is also a candidate.
Arsenal star and Russian captain Andrey Arshavin is confident of his team’s chances of making the tournament in Poland and Ukraine regardless of who is in charge. “We know that any opponent can be tough for us, but I think we have the ability to get out of the group in first place,” he said.
There are also fears in Slovakia that Vladimir Weiss, the coach who masterminded their national team’s World Cup qualification, could leave his post after the summer tournament. Weiss’s contract expires in July and though talks have begun on a new deal, nothing has been agreed yet. Nevertheless, the manager has said that he is relishing the opportunity to face Russia and has a high regard for the “passion” of Irish football.
“There are no favourites, and three or four teams have a good chance of getting through,” said Weiss.
The Group B fixture meeting – at which the competing nations will hammer out the match schedule – will take place in either Moscow or Bratislava later this month.
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