If you were looking to conduct a scientific experiment to measure the national team’s progress from Giovanni Trapattoni to Martin O’Neill, you could hardly do better –or maybe that should be worse — than Dino Zoff did in Nice yesterday when the Italian goalkeeping legend paired Ireland with Germany in Group D of the France 2016 Euro qualifying draw.
Nobody will need reminding that, last time around, Ireland suffered an aggregate 9-1 hammering at the feet of the Germans, in the doomed World Cup qualifying campaign which ended with Trapattoni’s exit from the job.
Now, it falls to Martin O’Neill to see if he can do any better against one of international football’s superpowers, as Ireland look to negotiate their way to one of the two automatic qualifying places in a European Championship Group D which also contains Poland, Scotland, Georgia and newcomers Gibraltar.
Conventional wisdom has it that, if Germany are involved in a qualifying group, they can be considered the winners even before a ball has been kicked, leaving the rest to squabble over the silver and bronze places. Martin O’Neill begs to differ, however. At least up to a point.
“I think that’s a bit defeatist,” he said after the draw. “Of course, Germany are the stand out team and expected to go and sweep all before them. But at home, if it we give a really proper approach, there is no reason why we can’t give them a game.”
At which point, he paused. “Those might be famous last words,” he interjected with a smile, before continuing: “I rate Germany very highly. They have good players and, more than that, they are playing with a bit of verve. We’ve all talked before about the old German efficiency. They have that but a lot of flair now as well. Most Germans are pretty excited by their side. You saw the games against us in the World Cup qualifying…”
Rather than relive that painful night in Dublin, we asked if O’Neill considers Germany among the favourites to lift the World Cup this summer.
“Sure they are, themselves and Spain, but for any European team to win the competition in South America will be pretty hard,” he replied.
Overall, he judged Group C to be pretty challenging, adding that Roy Keane – who was also in Nice for the draw – broadly shared his view.
“A little realism is necessary (with Germany in it) but by the same token you don’t want to have a defeatist attitude,” O’Neill reiterated. “Let’s go and approach all the games in the same manner. It’s a tough group but let’s get on with it. It’s going to be a battle all the way through, because it seems that teams are capable of talking points off one another.
“Whether that’s great news for qualification I don’t know. At the end of it all, I’m genuinely excited. I would be whispering a lie if I said I wasn’t eyeing up other groups and earmarking them.
“England’s group looked not too bad. They will like that. We’ve got Poland and when you consider Georgia in Pot Five, they are probably as strong a team in Pot Five as you could have got.”
Of course, O’ Neill has already come up against the Poles as manager of Ireland, his second game in charge being that scoreless draw in Poznan last November. But when we meet them again in Dublin in March 2015 he expects the circumstances to be very different.
“I think sometimes you don’t want to read too much into the friendly games,” he said. “When it comes up next time, it’s competitive. When they played us in November, with respect, they didn’t look to have the same intensity as they had at Wembley a while before. They could nearly have got something against England. They had a couple of good chances to score.”
O’Neill also revealed his pre-draw hunch that “we would get someone close to home,” and the Scots duly popped up to fit that bill, with the manager suggesting that, following years of under-achievement, they’re now making big strides under Gordon Strachan. “Very much so,” he stressed. “They’ve got the squad and they’ve got the players. And if they’ve got everyone fit and ready go, a lot of them are playing big time football. They are improving rapidly under Gordon. I don’t know why they haven’t done as well in recent years but he’s galvanising them at the moment, he’s got a good spirit going and, more than that, they have a few who can play a bit. Considering they are down in Pot Four, they’ll be happy enough with the way things are going.
O’Neill denied, however, that he had played a significant role in nominating Strachan as his successor as Celtic manager. “I don’t think that’s actually true,” he said. “Yes, I met Gordon beforehand but I think Dermot (Desmond) had made his mind up about that. I met Gordon with Dermot to run over the strengths and weaknesses of team. I left him with a fairly decent side and he did very well but I don’t think I had that big an influence.”
As for Group C’s minnows – Euro Championship newcomers Gibraltar – O’Neill confided with a deadpan expression that he doesn’t know too much about them but he was clearly chuffed to learn they will play their home qualifiers in Faro on the Algarve. “Sounds a great trip, doesn’t it?” he observed with a grin.
In conclusion, O’Neill confessed that, with Ireland’s course now plotted for the next two years, he feels he is finally immersed in the world of international management.
“Absolutely,” he enthused, “this is it. The draw totally focused it. I think the next couple of months will fly by. This is the point I was waiting for. I’m genuinely excited by it. Yes, we could have had a better draw. I think it’s pretty tough but it’s there and it definitely focuses the mind.”
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