When the groups were drawn for the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign back in February 2014, Irish hearts sunk. Soon to be world champions Germany, Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, and Gordon Strachan’s Scotland stood in the way of a team which didn’t stand much chance in the so-called ‘Group of Death’. When Shaun Maloney’s goal at Hampden Park last November was enough to give Scotland a massive win, you’d have probably been laughed at if you had said that Ireland still had a chance to get to the European Championships.
Somehow though Martin O’Neill’s men stood their ground and very nearly got an automatic second place; which would have been thoroughly deserved too. But it wasn’t to be as Ireland missed out by a single point, leaving them with a huge play off tie against an exciting Bosnian side who themselves were unlucky to not automatically qualify for the Euro’s. Shane Long’s winner against Germany will be something Irish fans will remember for a lifetime, but it won’t really count for anything if the boys in green don’t make it to France next summer.
Here are five ways Ireland can overcome Bosnia over the next few days.
CLEAN SHEET IN BOSNIA
It goes without saying Ireland need to keep a clean sheet over in Bosnia if they are to progress to Euro 2016. Ireland’s track record away from home isn’t the best, and it’s a major worry to the side. As Shay Given’s days in goal are looking numbered, Darren Randolph will have to be at the top of his game to stop the Bosnian’s from scoring. With captain John O’Shea’s silly red card against Poland meaning that he misses at least the first leg of the play-offs (he will hopefully be back for the second leg if he manages to recover from injury in time), whoever fills in will need to have the game of his life to help the cause. Ireland’s defence have proved themselves before, and although O’Shea’s absence will be seen, the performances from Richard Keogh, Seamus Coleman and Cyrus Christie have given hope to the country. In honesty, a 1-0 loss wouldn’t actually be all that bad, but anything more and Ireland can say farewell to France 2016.
Bosnian’s will be looking at their national treasure Edin Dzeko to deliver the goods for their nation. The former Manchester title winner scored seven goals in seven matches for his national side in the qualifying campaign, but it wasn’t enough as a Bale-inspired Wales and a very strong Belgium took the top two places. Bosnia got off to an awful start to their qualifying campaign, so Dzeko and Co. will be looking to make amends in the play-off matches. Dzeko has struggled for form since joining Roma, but he ended his goal draught when he won and scored his own penalty in the Derby della Capitale at the weekend; meaning he’ll be high on confidence. The whole of Ireland knows the qualities the 6 foot 3 striker possesses and one of the biggest tests is how O’Neill makes sure he’s dealt with over the two qualifiers.
START SHANE LONG (IF FIT)
Long is still recovering from an injury picked up against Poland, and the whole of Ireland will be praying that he will be fit in time for the play-off matches against Bosnia. With Jon Walters suspended, the lone-striker role up front should hopefully be filled by Long. Sometimes O’Neill opts for Ipswich’s Daryl Murphy instead, leaving Long to come off the bench to make an impact. Although Murphy will be high on confidence after his hat-trick against Rotherham at the weekend, these were only his first goals of the season and he isn’t good enough to lead the line against a very strong Bosnian side. After an injection to his ankle, O’Neill hasn’t ruled the Dubliner out just yet as he knows Long’s pace and clinical finishing could be vital to Ireland’s chances this week. He’s scored against the best before, and you feel the team will need him to be at his best to get past Chelsea’s Asmir Begovic
HAVE A PLAN B
Ireland have a real struggle to get a result when they concede first, and this is something else which is worrying. Against Germany they got the luck which sometimes is needed in football. But if the Germans had taken the lead Ireland wouldn’t have stood a chance. When Poland took the lead in the final group game, Ireland did get themselves back in the match through a Jon Walters penalty – albeit a questionable one. But when Lewandowski put Poland back ahead the result was never in doubt. This is down to Ireland not having a back-up plan. What that back-up plan could be is for Martin O’Neill to decide, but one thing is for sure: Ireland cannot be one-dimensional. O’Neill loves to flood the midfield and has the likes of Glenn Whelan, Darren Gibson and James McCarthy at his disposal. But he may have to reluctantly change it up if Ireland find themselves needing a goal to keep themselves in the competition.
Perhaps a little clichéd, but the (slight) home advantage for the second final game will have a huge impact on both teams. The Aviva Stadium will be packed to the rafters on Monday night, come-what-may and the support will be in full voice to push on the boys in Green. Weirdly enough, the Bilino Polje Stadium on Friday night will see just 11,000 fans cheering on the Bosnian team as their old Olympic Stadium in the capital is still under redevelopment following the Balkans War. This is something that the Irish team must take advantage of – the crowd will still be hostile, but nowhere near as intimidating as a 50,000+ one. O’Neill has already commented that he hopes the second fixture will be played in a “cracking atmosphere” where his team “can exploit things”. So if you’re lucky enough to be going to the match on Monday night, make sure you’re heard.
Bosnia and Herzegovina v Ireland- Bilino Polje Stadium. Friday 13th November, 19:45 GMT
Ireland v Bosnia and Herzegovina- Aviva Stadium. Monday 16th November, 19:45 GMT