With just Tuesday’s friendly in Liege against Italy to negotiate before their Summer break, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland squad can feel satisfied with their weekend’s work. With six games played and four left to contest in their campaign in Group B of qualifying for the 2012 European Championships the Irish squad know that their passage to Poland and the Ukraine is entirely in their own hands.
That said two of the four remaining games are against their rivals for qualification, with Slovakia visiting Dublin on September 2nd and then Ireland’s visit to Moscow four days later. Qualification chances are helped by the fact that Russia visit Slovakia on October 7th, so at least one of the sides that night will drop points. That means a return of four out of a possible six points during September should guarantee at least second place for the Republic of Ireland. Second place would most probably mean the unhappy hunting ground of the play offs. Of course beat both Slovakia and Russia and Ireland will qualify automatically as group winners, that is barring a disaster against either Andorra or Armenia. Slovakia’s victory in Moscow in September of last year and Russia’s unconvincing performance against Armenia in St. Petersburg at the weekend illustrate that victory on Russian soil for this Irish side is not beyond the realms of belief.
The Irish win in the Macedonian capital on Saturday was thanks to two Robbie Keane goals. Both goals were somewhat fortuitous, the first on eight minutes via a significant deflection, while the second nine minutes before the break was thanks to some atrocious defending by Boban Grncarov. Keane’s anticipation for the second was highly commendable, the Irish record scorer was already in full flight before Grncarov stubbed his pass back into the turf. That anticipation was followed up by a fine finish when Keane slotted the ball into the bottom left hand corner of the net.
The game in Skopje was played in the reconstructed Philip II Arena. A fine modern arena that is in complete contrast to the dimly lit dirt tracks that lead up to the stadium. Trying to find the correct entrance on Saturday left the travelling Irish fans longing for the sometimes over regulated colour coded ticketing and turnstile system used for the Aviva Stadium.
At times the contest in this revamped stadium on Saturday seemed like a battle of the two defences, as to which one would prove the most inept. In the end both defences let their guard down all too often but the difference was that the Irish attack punished their hosts rearguard while the Macedonians let Ireland off the hook more than once. The penalty miss by Ivan Trickovski was more mercy than the Irish defence deserved. The Macedonians could well have had another penalty earlier in the half when John O’Shea hauled down Goran Pandev. Had Florian Meyer pointed to the spot on that occasion it could have been double disaster for Ireland as he would have been well within his rights show O’Shea a red card.
After Ireland’s previous bad experiences and poor fortune in Skopje they should make no apologies for the few slices of fortune that allowed them to leave with all three points.
One of Ireland’s better performers on Saturday night was Aiden McGeady, at times he was carrying the threat to the hosts alone. His forays down the left wing were a constant worry for Macedonia. He usually faced two if not three defenders when he ball came to his feet, an illustration of the concern he caused in the home defence. If Slovakia assign the same level of cover to McGeady when they visit Dublin in September an overlapping full back could cause serious damage to the visiting defence. That is of course if Trapattoni allows his full backs cross the half way line.
McGeady and his overlapping full back aside Ireland could well have a much stronger side facing the Slovakians than took to the field in Skopje at the weekend. Due to return from suspension and injury are the key men of Dunne, Doyle and Duff. These considerations added to the fact that Ireland let Slovakia off the hook with a draw in Zilina back in October mean that Trapattoni’s men should feel confident of taking all three points. Three points that would tee them up for their formidable task of the visit to Moscow on September 6th.