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Wednesday 28 June 2017

Serb visit is key clash

Branislav Ivanovic feels his side will improve in the final four qualifiers. Photo: Getty Images
Branislav Ivanovic feels his side will improve in the final four qualifiers. Photo: Getty Images

So it's a case of 'As You Were' in Group D of the World Cup qualifiers heading into the summer break after a series of Sunday draws.

But while Austria and Wales have now been left with absolutely no wriggle room, both needing four wins from four games to stand a chance of qualifying, Serbia have warned their rivals for top spot in the group, Ireland, that the boys from Belgrade will only get better as the group heads into the key phase of qualification.

Serbia and Ireland shared the same pain on Sunday: finding themselves burdened by a large and demanding home crowd and needing a late goal to claw back a draw.

Serbia and Ireland have games to play before that September meeting of the two nations in Dublin but Branislav Ivanovic feels his side will improve.

Potential

"This Serbia team has potential and will only grow," says the former Chelsea man, now in Russia with Zenit.

Austria’s Martin Hinteregger (l) still believes his side is in with a chance in of making it to Russia. Photo: Sportsfile
Austria’s Martin Hinteregger (l) still believes his side is in with a chance in of making it to Russia. Photo: Sportsfile

"We had to settle for a point at home to Wales but there is a long road ahead and a lot to play for, and maybe it's good that we dropped points now as we have a chance to make up for it later on."

Ex-Manchester City player Matija Nastastic has good memories of playing Ireland: he made his senior home debut for Serbia in a 0-0 friendly draw with a Giovanni Trapattoni-managed side in 2012 and he also played in the 2-2 draw in Belgrade at the start of this campaign, and he sees that trip to Dublin as crucial.

"We have four cup finals left," says Nastasic, who left City for Schalke in 2015.

"The games with Moldova and Georgia won't be easy but the away game in Ireland is crucial and we have to keep our focus."

The focus for the mid-tier sides in the group is simple: win or bust.

"We still have a chance," says Martin Hinteregger, whose goal on Sunday gave Austria that lead.

"Of course, we also know that we need four wins, nothing less will do."

That's also the Welsh target. "I think realistically if we want to finish first, we need four wins," manager Chris Coleman said.

"If we want to take our chance in a play-off it's at least three wins and a draw. Mathematically that's probably what we need. But Serbia have to go to Ireland, and they have to go to Austria, they can't all take three points. The group is still very much in the balance. We're still chasing."

One other subplot in this group is the battle to avoid the wooden spoon.

Georgia, on three points, are one point better off than Moldova. Those two sides played out an entertaining 2-2 draw in Chisinau on Sunday but they both have the potential, more so Georgia, to take points off other teams.

Two of Ireland's next three games are against the bottom two, away to Georgia in September and then at home to Moldova a month later.

Moldova were poor in their 3-1 loss at home to Ireland last year but they seem to have improved since then, just two defeats in seven (including friendlies) in that time.

"We want to avoid finishing in last place. That's our goal and I think we can succeed," says Moldova midfielder Eugeniu Cebotaru, who believes that morale has improved on the back of recent results, where Moldova were unlucky to lose 2-0 to Austria and also earned those two draws with Georgia.

"As a team we have grown in the last two games, we have gained confidence, and I feel that results will come."

In the wake of their performance in Group D and that failure to win in Moldova, Georgia's coach Vladimir Weiss has again been asked about his future, asked if he is the man for the job.

Available

He insists he is and points to the lack of quality players available - one of those who started for Georgia on Sunday plays for a club in the Cypriot Second Division - as proof that he's doing his best.

Weiss has caused Ireland problems before, when manager of Slovakia in the Euro 2012 qualifiers and, even though Georgia have a terrible record against Ireland (seven games, seven defeats), one stat is worth bearing in mind as Ireland plan for their next game: since a 2-0 defeat at home to World Cup champions Germany in 2015, Georgia have scored at least once in the nine subsequent home games.

So, Serbia are indeed the big threat to Ireland. But we should always have Georgia on our minds.

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