Tuesday 12 December 2017

Bosnia or bust for Ireland's Euro 2016 dreams

O’Neill delighted to accept home advantage for decisive play-off second leg tie at Aviva

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, right, pictured with Bosnia and Herzegovina coach Mehmed Baždarevic at the Euro 2016 Play-Off draw in Nyon, Switzerland yesterday
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, right, pictured with Bosnia and Herzegovina coach Mehmed Baždarevic at the Euro 2016 Play-Off draw in Nyon, Switzerland yesterday
Shane Long and his Ireland team-mates will be aiming for more heroics at the Aviva Stadium next month when they take on Bosnia-Herzegovina for a place at Euro 2016 in France next summer

At least Wes Hoolahan will start in Ireland's final game of the long and very winding road we have been on to France.

Yesterday's draw in Nyon gave us Bosnia and Herzegovina but perhaps crucially, Dominque Rochetaux's silky skills with table tennis balls effectively handed O'Neill the seeded position by drawing Ireland in the away slot for the opening fixture.

It used to be the prerogative of the seeded team to play the final leg at home and perhaps we should doff our collective cap to Giovanni Trapattoni who kicked up a big fuss with FIFA and UEFA in two different play-offs over perceived advantage to stronger nations and was at least part of the reason why the change was made.


The consequence of this is that O'Neill and his players know the reward on offer if they can limit what has been a flaky Bosnian team so far in the Euro 2016 qualifying phase in the first-leg.

"If there is any advantage to be gained in playing at home second, that is good but the most important thing is to still be in the competition," said the Ireland boss.

"There is no point in thinking that we hold an advantage in Dublin with the crowd behind us if we don't go and perform in the first game. That would be really important. Bosnia by that time will probably have Edin Dzeko back from injury. They have some really decent players."

Given O'Neill's opinion on Hoolahan and his unwillingness to start him in away games, there is at least the consolation that there could be no such excuse at the Aviva Stadium for the second and decisive leg.

Hoolahan was fit enough for the bench Norwich against Newcastle yesterday which appears to back up O'Neill's view about his availability for the game in Warsaw last week but that's water under the bridge and we can only pray he stays fit.

Bosnia were more than fortunate to make it this far. They had to dig their way out of Group B in the final game against Cyprus while Hoolahan sat on the bench and Ireland struggled against Poland.

Glance at the full list and two results from Bosnia's campaign to date leap off of the page. The home 2-1 defeat by Cyprus on day one gives O'Neill hope but a 2-0 win over Wales should generate the required note of caution.

But perhaps the most significant pointer came when Bosnia needed to come from behind in Cyprus in the final game of the group. Milan Djuric's 67th winner showed that they are prepared to fight for the right to go to France.

"I watched their game against Cyprus. Had Cyprus won that they would have been in the play-offs because Israel would have had to have won in Belgium. Bosnia did great to win that, got a goal in front and went behind 2-1 and came back in the game, so they have some very fine players."

O'Neill rates Bosnia as a very different proposition to Ireland's last play-off experience against Estonia.

"I think the opposition we'll be playing this time will be slightly different. It must have been fantastic to have got that draw at the time. I'm not saying it guarantees you, it absolutely doesn't, but it must have been the draw you could have died for."

O'Neill believes that Ireland's huge win over Germany will carry over into these two games and that confidence should still be high.

"It's fresh, it's recent in the minds. They should take great heart from not only the performance particularly in the second half, because it's all recent but why shouldn't be it be a major fillip?"

O'Neill is hoping to repeat the formula which helped him prepare for the win over the Germans and it looks like the November 13/16 Friday/Monday fixture split and the English fixture list will cooperate.

No squad member will be active in a three game Sunday Premier League programme on November 8 and the Championship list wraps up on Saturday.

"It gives us an extra day. It worked against Germany which was great, a short turnaround but we couldn't do as much homework on Poland," he revealed.

"Everything was absolutely geared to Germany because this was our chance. There was no point going to Poland if you've not tried to do something against Germany."

"One reporter said that he'd been really surprised because he thought I'd play a weakened team against Germany and then go for it in Poland."

"It never crossed my mind. The Germany game was the game because it was the next game. If Poland had been the other way around, I mightn't have had time to prepare for Germany," said O'Neill.

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