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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Ward: Bosnia will be a real battle

Defender says there'll be no repeat of facile play-off win over Estonia

9 November 2015; Republic of Ireland's Stephen Ward, left, and Marc Wilson, right, during squad training. Republic of Ireland Squad Training, National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
9 November 2015; Republic of Ireland's Stephen Ward, left, and Marc Wilson, right, during squad training. Republic of Ireland Squad Training, National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Ireland's Stephen Ward shoots and scores his goal against Estonia during their Euro 2012 playoff soccer match in Dublin

A trip to the Baltics turned out to be a mere walk in the park for Ireland on the last occasion of a European Championship play-off.

This week's trek to the Balkans is a different matter for Martin O'Neill's side. While Tallinn, by and large, greeted that Euro 2012 play-off with a shrug of indifference Bosnia, and in particular Zenica, the host city for the first leg of this play-off, are gearing up for a big night tomorrow evening. The flags are out, the game is sold out and they are counting down the hours, from the moment Ireland's flight lands in Sarajevo this afternoon.

Tight

The multi-cultural mix in this city, an hour's drive from Sarajevo, is there to see in the street stalls where, alongside more modern baseball caps with the colours of the national team, you can buy an old-school, Tommy Cooper-style fez with the Bosnian logo and the national emblem, the lily - but Ireland can expect to receive no bouquets in the tight 10,500 capacity stadium.

Stephen Ward is one of the few survivors from the Irish side which effectively won the two-legged play-off against Estonia in just 90 minutes with that 4-0 first-leg win (Glenn Whelan, Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane are the only other players from that day in the squad for tomorrow) but he's put that win to the back of his mind.

"The last play-off we had, Estonia, could hardly have gone better for us, the 4-0 win in the first leg," Ward told The Herald.

"We still had the second leg to deal with but it was really over after the first leg, luckily for us.

"I know we won't have it as easy in the away leg here, we will have more more of a battle than we had four years ago in Tallinn.

"We've heard about the passionate crowd they will have in Zenica and they have a good home record, so we can't look back to the Estonia game and hope the same happens again.

"But we were confident in ourselves before Germany and we did what was needed and we'll take the same confidence into this one. We certainly won't be in our shell," says Ward.

If he plays at left back, the Burnley man is braced for a testing night against a busy Bosnian attack. "I don't think we should fear Bosnia. They have good players, we know that but we can match them. I think it's the Irish way to do well against the big sides and not be intimidated," he says.

"We know it won't be easy but we fancy ourselves against anyone, I think us beating Germany proves that.

"It's been an odd campaign, getting four points against Germany and only one against Scotland but that happens in these groups, it's how the table is at the end of the group, we did enough to get into the play-offs and now we know what we have to do," added Ward.

He has battled with Edin Dzeko before, and the then Manchester City man did score against Ward's Wolves in a 3-1 win for the Blues (in 2011, just before that play-off against Estonia).

"Yeah, Dzeko is a handful but we can't just focus on him and ignore others," says Ward.

"But I think we have to look to ourselves and not build them up too much. You do your research and your homework and you can't go into a game blind but We have a hard game ahead no matter who they pick so we look to our strengths.

"If we can score it's a big step towards the job being done overall."

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