Roy Keane said the other day that the Euro 2016 already feels like it took place 100 years ago.
But while it is certainly tricky to make an entirely valid comparison between the concentrated form of tournament football and the protracted, spaced-out nature of a qualifying campaign, there is one way in which tonight’s game in Belgrade carries a distinct echo of events in the summer.
As with Ireland’s Euro Finals match against Sweden in Paris, this World Cup opener against Serbia is one of those games in which the avoidance of defeat can legitimately be regarded as, in the parlance of football, a result.
Of course, Martin O’Neill insists that his team will go in search of three points, as he always will, and as they always do, but should Ireland win in Belgrade’s ‘Marakana’, it would come as a very welcome bonus, the 2016 World Cup campaign off to a flyer no less.
The more realistic hope, perhaps, is that the team come away from Serbia with something on the board to get the show up and running in Group D. Anything less, and talk of a Euros hangover will be as deafening as the headache the team will face in trying to make up lost ground.
“I don’t think it’s possible to start to play for a draw,” said O’Neill yesterday, “but I think this competition will be so tight, so, so tight, that every point is going to be valuable. I think nobody will run away from this group. We, in our European campaign, won the opening game against Georgia which became a very important three points for us. And I think any team that wins away from home in this group will do very well.”
A Serbian journalist tickled O’Neill’s funny bone by making a point of telling him that the last time John O’Shea came up against Aleksandar Mitrovic, the Newcastle United striker scored against the Irish defender in the Premier League.
”I’m pleased you told me that, I wasn’t aware of it and it means that John O’Shea will not now play,” deadpanned the Derryman.
In fact, with O’Shea and Seamus Coleman looking like they’ve shaken off their injury woes, it will be a surprise if both aren’t in Ireland’s starting line-up tonight, with O’Neill also heavily hinting that the Everton man, who finished the Euros as captain, will take on that responsibility for the longer term.
The manager said that, assuming they suffer no late fitness problem, he would have no qualms about starting Coleman and O’Shea despite their conspicuous shortage of game-time since the start of the Premier League season. Coleman is “naturally fit”, he said while, of the veteran O’Shea, he quipped, “not only has he played, he ended up in central midfield for one of the games — and for John, that’s the equivalent of about eight games.”
Coleman’s increasing maturity, along with the growing emergence — over the course of Euros qualifying and on into the finals in the summer — of Shane Long, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean as key figures in the Irish team, is a definite cause for optimism at the outset of the new campaign.
But while O’Neill expressed the view that the players are entitled to take confidence from their exploits in the summer, he also cited the example of the Netherlands finishing third at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and then failing to qualify for Euro 2016 as a striking example of how good things can quickly come undone in football.
The overriding sense you get from Ireland’s manager is that he sees his side as still very much a work in progress.
“Do I think the side we have now is the side we will end up with in two years’ time?” he asked himself. “Who knows? We’ve not made that many changes because the Euro championships are just over and those players who played very well and have not retired will give this the best possible go.”
And he reiterated his belief that, as Ireland prepare to take the first step on the World Cup 2018 journey, the road to Russia will be anything but straightforward.
”I think the teams (in the group) are, overall, pretty well matched,” he said. “I think Serbia are strong, I think there’s a rejuvenation about them. Wales have done brilliantly. Austria are a much better side than their Euros results suggest. Georgia are rejuvenated also and Moldova are no pushover.
“It’s too early to call anything. Everybody will look at the long-term picture. I think that first, second, and third will be pretty well close together and it will go right down to the last couple of matches.
”We are sitting here on the eve of the competition and there will be lots of twists and turns, as there were in the Euros. First of all, there’s only one team certain of qualification and your mindset should be trying to get to that (first spot). As will every single side: if you were to go to Georgia tonight they’d be thinking these games are difficult but we can win our home matches and grab some points away from home.
“Everybody will go in with that mindset. After three, four, or five matches you might look at it from a different viewpoint. Three of our first four matches are away from home and we need to stay in the competition before we get into it.”
Which us brings us neatly back to where we came in.
Serbia may be missing a couple of big names and, like their neighbours Bosnia, carry the reputation in recent times of a side which, for all its individual flair, is lacking in strength of character.
But at home in Belgrade tonight and under new management, Serbia should still be capable of providing Ireland with about as searching a test away from home as O’Neill’s team are likely to face in the whole campaign.
Avoiding a false start in the race to Russia is imperative, so while an Irish win would be wonderful tonight, a point will do very nicely indeed.
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