Victories away from home in opening games have turned out to be hugely significant in Ireland’s last two successful qualification campaigns.
There was the 1-0 win against Armenia in Yerevan, courtesy of a Keith Fahey goal, at the beginning of the road to the finals of Euro 2012 — when Giovanni Trapattoni was still in charge — and the 2-1 victory over Georgia in Tbilisi, thanks to an inspired brace from Aiden McGeady, which got Martin O’Neill’s first campaign as manager up and running and led, ultimately, to the finals of Euro 2016.
The torrential rain and boggy surface in the old-school Red Star Stadium in Belgrade were visible signs that a memorable summer in France was already long gone.
But for O’Neill the bigger distinction was that, with the opening of the World Cup campaign, he and his team have moved from the cup to league football.
And, against that long-haul background, he seems to think critics of Monday night’s display are missing the point.
“I was asked a couple of questions about (whether we can) take things to another level,” he said in a tone of exasperation.
“This is a new competition. This is not tournament football. This is qualification football. We should realise this and know these things.
“This was a big point for us and we have to go and try and make use of it now in the upcoming games. Austria, who didn’t perform to their ability (at the Euros), have won away from home against Georgia. That’s a big result for them. And we got off the mark. We scored a great equalising goal. We created a number of chances in the game — and, in fairness, so did Serbia — so we’ve really got to sort of tighten up around about the place. But, in those conditions, we’re off the mark.”
That said, O’Neill does find some similarities between Belgrade in the autumn and Lyon in the summer.
“I’m delighted with the point, absolutely delighted with it, delighted in the circumstances eventually,” he reiterated. “We got off to a great start but just because you score in two minutes, it’s a long, long time (to go). We scored early on in the match against France too. Again, similar to France in many aspects, we’re sitting there reasonably comfortable. It would be nice to go and try to get a second goal. We tried to push forward but Serbia, like France, started to push us back again. But overall I’m delighted with the fact that we fought back. I’m delighted with the fact that we created chances as well. We scored two goals away from home on a quagmire of a pitch against what I would still consider very decent opposition.”
O’Neill says he saw enough from Serbia to convince him that other teams in the group will do well to get a point or points in Belgrade.
“I think if the crowd decide to get behind the team and support them in droves — which I’ve seen before there — then I think it will be difficult for the other teams.
“And, far from ruling Serbia out, they’ve got some players to come back too. Who knows who’s going to be fit at any given stage? We’ve got our own things to be concerned about. But, talking about fitness, some of our players who played on Monday will gain from that. And, in a month’s time, if they are fit for international matches, having played some club games, that maybe could be of benefit to us.”
It was an injury issue too, according to the manager, which dictated his deployment of subs on the night, with Stephen Quinn coming into midfield and Robbie Brady reverting to left-full after Stephen Ward was called ashore.
“Because Stephen Ward had a knock earlier on — the one when he was down in the first half and the player wasn’t booked,” he explained.
“If Stephen Ward was booked then that player should have been booked — I think the referee even admitted that as we were going off at half-time. I don’t know what is this pandering to the player — book him, it’s a straightforward booking. And Stephen Ward didn’t really recover. He had a dead leg and he was struggling. So we brought Quinn into the middle. Robbie’s played there (at full-back) and we still needed Robbie on the pitch. The other substitutions, of course, were Daryl (Murphy) coming on to score the goal — which was great for us — and (Ciaran) Clark to tighten things up at the end.”
Which is another way of saying that, if Ireland weren’t going to win their opening game this time, then the vital thing was they didn’t lose it.
Now, as his thoughts turn to Georgia at home and Moldova and Austria away — to complete Ireland’s World Cup qualifiers for this year — O’Neill revealed there is a chance of an additional friendly game being arranged in November. “There is a possibility of that and it’s something the FAI were talking about,” he said.
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