russia scalp key for trap
But a winning start in Armenia is still vital to progress
HE'S DONE it once already, in fact he did it in his first game in his first campaign.
But Giovanni Trapattoni will have to keep up that record and open the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012 with a win away from home if his Ireland team is to have any chance of making it to the finals in Poland and Ukraine in two years' time.
Two weeks after a meeting of blazers from all the countries in Ireland's group got together in Moscow and came away without an agreement on dates for their fixtures, UEFA conducted a lottery draw in Israel yesterday to determine who plays who and when in Group B.
It wasn't the worst list of dates that Ireland could have been landed with. In brief, Ireland kick off the campaign with a game away to Armenia, follow that up with a home match against Andorra before one of the crunch games of the group, Russia at home in October, and we close off 2010 with a trip to Slovakia.
And Trapattoni has already targeted a nine-point haul from the first three games, something an Irish manager has not achieved in recent times (see panel).
"The draw is very good," said the Italian. "For me it is a very, very good start because in September our players are fit. The players will have been playing with their clubs and normally our players are fit at that time.
"That is very good news and important news. These three games -- Armenia away, Andorra and Russia at home -- I think we have a good option to gain an advantage. These games will be important but we must arrive at them with an advantage.
"We believe we could be potentially in a good position going into the first Russia home game and then the second time we play in September 2011.
"After that, we have Andorra away and Armenia at home, it will be a good opportunity to finish the group well. But the important thing is to have the advantage going into those games.
"I think this draw is difficult but I think it is a better draw than the last World Cup. I think the last one was definitely harder with the likes of Italy and then Montengro and Bulgaria games falling at potentially difficult times.
"We're not under- estimating the opposition -- Slovakia are a big threat and going to the World Cup -- but there were some quite difficult fixtures in the last campaign and this one is easier.
"I think the one thing we have now is a huge belief in our ability. It is clear from the beginning when we played Georgia until now, we've made enormous steps forward.
"You look at how we faced up to Bulgaria, Montengro, Italy and then France and lately Brazil, you can see this is a team that believes in itself and that will serve us well going into the qualification programme."
Next year's games are spaced out with one in March (Macedonia at home) and June (Macedonia away) before double headers in September (Slovakia at home and Russia away) and October (Andorra away and Armenia at home).
A couple of dates already stand out as must-win games: Russia at home and Slovakia away, no easy task due to our history, which Irish fans can only hope will change under Trapattoni's continued guidance.
Take the Russia home game first, a match Ireland need to win if we are to be in with a shout of topping the group, but there's little evidence from the recent past that we can do it. Maybe the return to Lansdowne Road will revive the spirits of the 1980s and early '90s, when Dublin truly was a fortress where visitors failed to get anything.
Anyone who feels that Dublin is still impregnable to foreign hordes should remember that in recent campaigns, Ireland have failed each time to win at home against the so-called major nations: France (twice), Italy, Bulgaria, Germany, Czech Republic, Switzerland (twice), Russia, Israel and Portugal have all come to Dublin and left undefeated in qualifiers.
Exclude the wins over Slovakia (before they became a force capable of qualifying for a World Cup) and Iran, and the last time Ireland won at home against a big side was the 1-0 defeat of Holland. That's nine years ago now. So that date, Friday October 8th at home to Russia, is a key game if Ireland are to make it to the finals.
But one of the most important fixtures is the first one, Armenia away on September 3rd. Trapattoni has a good track record when it comes to opening games away from home in campaigns with Ireland: played one, won one (against Georgia, though the game was played on neutral soil in Germany).
He may need some luck and his magic touch if Ireland are to earn that win in Yerevan, as a win is indeed needed by this Irish side. Winning in Armenia is doable. Sometimes.
In the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, the Armenians had a very poor home record: they lost to Turkey (0-2), Bosnia (0-2) and Spain (1-2), drew with Estonia (2-2) and had just one win, a 2-1 defeat of Belgium. That defeat was one of the worst in the Belgian's history, their equivalent of our 5-2 loss in Cyprus, so that should sound a note of caution to Irish fans heading to Yerevan.
In fairness to Armenia that campaign overall was poor and they were a bit better at home in the qualifiers for Euro 2008, when they beat Poland and drew with Finland and Serbia, though they did lose to Belgium and had a nightmare of their own patch when they lost 1-0 to Kazakhstan, a result which really did make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan.