Irish dare to dream of France 2016

Ireland are looking to put the pain of Poland behind them as they take aim at a dangerous Bosnian side. David Deignan previews a crucial two weeks for Martin O’Neill?The Republic of Ireland international team have a frustrating yet endearing habit of making things difficult for themselves, a fact that bore fruit in the closing stages of the team’s UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying group stage. After a dramatic Scottish slip up in Georgia, Martin O’Neill’s team managed to claw their way back into contention with back to back wins over Gibraltar and Georgia. A famous victory at home to Germany left the team in a great position to grasp an unlikely automatic qualification spot but a disappointing defeat in Poland meant the group concluded with Ireland taking third place and guaranteeing a two-legged playoff match against a similarly placed opposition.While this lifeline would have satisfied most supporters mere months ago, the strength of the victory over Germany meant the subsequent failure to dislodge a stubborn Polish side left a bitter aftertaste. Besides, the play-off stage is by no means an easy entry into the tournament proper. Having been drawn to face a deceptively difficult team, this Irish side will certainly have their work cut out if they want to be taking to the pitch in France next June and July. But would we have it any other way?The Irish team will face the Bosnians, an underrated side who have the potential to give the Irish team more than a few headaches over the two legs. Having finished top of their group to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup – their first appearance in the tournament – the Bosnians performed admirably in the group stages. They won over neutrals but narrowly failed to edge out eventual finalists Argentina and a strong Nigerian side. Picking up a mere point from their opening four games in the European Qualifiers prompted a change of command, installing Mehmed Badzarevic as manager in November 2014. Under the new man they have been in fiery form, winning five of their remaining six games to clinch third spot and set up a tantalising play-off fixture against the Irish.
“O’Neill will have to find a way to deal with this threat better than the one Robert Lewandowski posed in Poland.”
While our opponents have yet to qualify for a European Championship, their footballing history is relatively short. The team in its current incarnation only became a member of FIFA in 1996 with their first attempt at qualification for an international tournament being the 1998 World Cup. Worryingly for the Republic of Ireland the nation is currently experiencing a so-called ‘golden generation’ with its current squad possessing players with the quality to help them compete on a world stage. The most recognisable names on the team sheet for fans of English football will be formidable former Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and the reliable Asmir Begovic, currently José Mourinho’s first-choice at Chelsea in lieu of Thibaut Courtois. Dzeko is also the captain and top scorer with a haul of 44 goals in 74 caps and is the biggest threat to Ireland’s goal over the two legs. Dzeko was the fourth top scorer across the qualifying stages and O’Neill will have to find a way to deal with this threat better than the one Robert Lewandowski posed in Poland.The rest of the Bosnian squad is littered with names that will be unfamiliar to many who aren’t heavily invested in the European leagues but there are a couple of other players of note. 35 year old Hamburg defender Emir Spahic is the most capped player in the side’s history and will be expected to marshall the back four while deep lying playmaker Miroslav Pjanic has been lighting up Series A for Roma. Pjanic, a set-piece specialist, has been in incredible form so far this season, and is linked to the two major Spanish clubs. It may be necessary for O’Neill to assign a tireless midfielder such as James McCarthy or Glenn Whelan to man-mark the dangerous Bosnian for the two ties. If he is allowed the ability to roam free it could prove Ireland’s undoing.There has only been one previous fixture between the two sides, a friendly in the Aviva Stadium back in 2012. Shane Long scored the decider for Giovanni Trappatoni’s team that afternoon, but there are question marks over whether the striker will be available for the double-headed decider. Ireland’s hero against Germany picked up an ankle injury during the defeat in Warsaw and faces a race against time to prove his fitness before the first leg, which falls on Friday the 13th. If Long is unavailable it could mean a place in the starting line-up for Robbie Keane. There are no question marks surrounding the availabilities of John O’Shea and Jonathon Walters, both of whom will miss the first leg through suspension. Shay Given may also miss out after the injury he sustained against the Germans, meaning Darren Randolph will retain his spot in the starting XI.Elsewhere Martin O’Neill will have some important decisions to make around the pitch. Having made a host of enforced changes to his side following the victory over Germany it will be interesting to see whether the manager decides to persevere with the side who ran Poland close or choose a team similar to the one who toppled the world champions. Selecting Stephen Ward or Marc Wilson at left back would allow Robbie Brady to return to the midfield role in which he shone against the Germans.Richard Keogh should keep his place in defence but the question of who will partner him will likely be discussed right up until kick off. A return to fitness for Wilson could result in his return to the team in the middle. It would be a big surprise if O’Neill dropped his trusted lieutenant Whelan, an ever present in the side when fit. However following McCarthy’s best performance in an Irish shirt against Germany in Whelan’s absence there are very legitimate questions over what exactly the Stoke midfielder brings to the team. Wes Hoolahan should start after being sorely missed against Poland, instilling the Irish with confidence and meaning viewers of RTÉ will be saved another Eamon Dunphy panic attack.If Ireland are looking for any lucky omens ahead of the tie, they should remember that the Bosnians have never been victorious over a two legged play-off. Long may that record continue.