Backs to the wall — that’s the popular consensus on where stands the Irish football team as a depleted line-up prepares to face world champions Germany at the Aviva Stadium tonight.
But if you want a Group D side whose position far more accurately merits that description, then look no further than Scotland, who are really and truly fighting for their European Championship lives in Hampden Park tonight.
Should Gordon Strachan’s side lose to Poland then it’s all over for them — and, regardless of what happens in the Aviva this evening or in Warsaw on Sunday, Ireland would be assured of a play-off place.
On the other hand, should the home side in Glasgow pick up even one point this evening then, with Gibraltar in Faro their last inviting port of call, the pressure would all be back on the Irish — unless, of course, they can match the Scots’ result in Dublin.
But, as things stand this morning, and for all that the stakes are soaring as the qualifying campaign approaches its conclusion, the reality is that the pressure on Ireland tonight should be lessened by the knowledge that, whatever happens, it won’t be terminal — they will still have a second bite at the cherry if the saga goes right down to the wire.
Which is just as well. Given that even a full-strength Irish side would be underdogs against Germany, the loss of a number of key players this evening means it’s even harder to make a persuasive case for Martin O’Neill’s men being able to prevent a star-studded, in-form and close to full-strength German side from taking full points at the Aviva.
A simple comparison of the players available to O’Neill and his German counterpart Joachim Low suggests that, if logic has any standing in the game of football, there can only be one outcome at Lansdowne Road — and it won’t be an end to that now 14-year-long wait for a conquest to rival or indeed eclipse that famous 1-0 defeat of the Netherlands at the old Lansdowne Road in 2001.
Ireland bucked all the odds against Louis van Gaal’s side, as you might recall, overcoming Dutch quality and even superiority in numbers after Gary Kelly had been sent off, to fashion triumph out of adversity through Jason McAteer’s celebrated goal.
But then Ireland had a certain Roy Keane on the pitch that day to set the Dutch teeth rattling with that early seismic challenge on Marc Overmars, an unmistakable signal that whatever else the team might lack, it wouldn’t be heart and soul.
Unfortunately, the force of nature that is Keano will be confined to the dugout tonight but you suspect that if Ireland are to have any chance of disconcerting formidable opposition, they will have to channel something of the assistant manager’s renowned fighting spirit on the field of play.
It was a subject enlarged upon by O’Neill yesterday in the course of a little side trip through history.
“That has been part of the culture here,” he said. “I played for Northern Ireland and we had exactly the same. We had some wonderful players in our side but essentially we had to battle for every ounce you could possibly have in the games. And I looked across the border and saw the likes of Liam Brady and (Frank) Stapleton, really good players playing then, but despite the fine players they had, it seemed from a distance that they didn’t maybe possess the same sort of team spirit that we had.
“I think things have changed since then. I think Jack Charlton coming in and Mick McCarthy changed that. But, you would know better than me, we’ve always had to fight for it. I say this but not every single minute for the Germans when they won the World Cup was pleasant for them — they had to battle through certain matches themselves, had to find a bit of spirit.
“Spirit alone won’t win you football matches but it does help in times of real predicament. I think we have that and I talk about it, yes, but we also have one or two players who can play a bit as well and, given a chance, could open up the Germans.”
Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady were two of the bright sparks O’Neill talked up yesterday, as confirmation came through that while Seamus Coleman will not be involved tonight — with a view to his being back for Warsaw — Wes Hoolahan has recovered from a bruised heel and will be available to play. The widespread assumption is that the inexperienced Cyrus Christie will step in for Coleman at right-back, with David Meyler coming into a midfield shorn of the suspended Glenn Whelan.
Scotland’s two goals in their 3-2 loss to Germany suggest the world champions are hardly impregnable at the back, while that textbook away performance in Gelsenkirchen, crowned by John O’Shea equaliser at the death, is another source of hope the Irish might somehow buck the odds again.
But, ultimately — and even allowing for managerial bias — O’Neill himself probably got the true scale of the challenge just about right yesterday in his summing up of what lies in ahead.
“We’re playing the world champions,” he said, “players who are playing Champions League football on a regular basis, players who have won a World Cup, players who have got the experience of going away from home and dealing with any given situation.
“Does that mean that we just give up? Absolutely not. We’re going to go and show a bit of fighting spirit and a bit of ability and a bit of self-belief. A bit of self-belief to know that when we have the ball — as we will at certain stages — we try and manoeuvre it. Because we will get a chance to play.
“The Germans are very, very good. I don’t always go in for stats but I think they enjoyed 400 more passes than Scotland had — and Scotland were playing at home. And Scotland would be renowned for being able to deal with the ball.
“But does that mean it’s impossible? Absolutely not. We have a challenge on our hands and I think we have the desire to deal with that challenge.”
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