Ireland prepare for World Cup play-off draw

By Liam Carroll

The men in green recorded a 2-1 in Cyprus

Being 180 minutes short of World Cup qualification isn’t exactly what your typical Irishman is accustomed to, but after Ireland’s exploits over Italy and Montenegro during the week, Geovanni Trapattoni’s men finished with an adequate points total to ensure a play-off spot.

FIFA’s bizarre decision in seeding the top four ranked sides in the play-offs has been met with shock, anger and outrage, but one must remain defiant.

Ireland is the only team in the play-offs yet to taste defeat in World Cup qualification. Not bad after being pitted in a group containing World Champions Italy, a talented Bulgaria side, and capable sides such as Cyprus, Georgia, and best of the sixth seeds, Montenegro.

No FIFA mathematician did the Irish any favours in Friday’s fresh rankings, so the Men in Green face a daunting task in facing European hard hitters Russia, France, Portugal or Greece, subject to Monday’s draw in Zurich.

It’s a case of what could have been for Ireland, seeing as the Irish pot contains what can only be described as fellow footballing lightweights of Europe: Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia.

Much has been said about FIFA’s moving of the goalposts, and I need not add fuel to the fire. Let’s savour this moment, no concerns about FIFA fat-cats and corporate greed should come between us and the Irish plantation of South Africa in June 2010.

Who Ireland can be potentially drawn against:

Russia

FIFA World Ranking: 6th (Sep 2009), 12th (Oct 2009)
Coach: Guus Hiddink
Captain: Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal)
2010 World Cup Qualification Record: Group 4 (containing Germany, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein) Won 7, Drawn 1, Lost 2.
2010 World Cup Qualification Top Scorer: Roman Pavluychenko(Tottenham Hotspur), 5

Verdict: Without doubt the most daunting of possibilities. It’s unimaginable that the Russian Football Federation would consider a match of this magnitude to be played anywhere outside of Moscow, and its freezing mid November average temperatures.

No amount of fire in the belly could withhold the onslaught of a Russian snowstorm and a packed stadium of at least 80,000 roaring Russians. Russia will be sure to boss whoever they come up against in Moscow, and with quality proven Premiership stars such as Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavluychenko, Yuri Zhirkov and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, they will be in command of the orange ball in Moscow, under the watchful eye of mastermind Guus Hiddink.

Hiddink has already overseen three teams to World Cup tournaments: Netherlands in 1998(Quarter-finals), South Korea 2002 (4th place), Australia 2002(Second Round). Hiddink was also in charge of Russia in 2008 European Championships where he took them to the semi-final, losing to eventual winners Spain.

Hiddink and company will prove to be a formidable obstacle to overcome, and if Ireland or any other unseeded team manage to prevent Russia from reaching South Africa, they are worthy of their place in the World Cup.

France

FIFA World Ranking: 10th (Sep 2009), 9th (Oct 2009)
Coach: Raymond Domenech
Captain: Thierry Henry (Barcelona)
2010 World Cup Qualification Record: Group 7 (containing Serbia, Austria,Lithuania, Romania, Faroe Islands) Won 6, Drawn 3, Lost 1.
2010 World Cup Qualification Top Scorers: Andre-Pierre Gignac (Toulouse FC), 4 and Thierry Henry(Barcelona),4

Verdict: Les Bleus stuttered to a runner-up spot in Group 7, which was won by Serbia. France are an under firing unit under Domenech, who is about as popular as Nicolas Sarkozy in his home country, and that’s saying a lot. France posses an embarrassing array of footballing talent, and why a manager who has in the past failed to include Robert Pires in squads because he is a scorpios is baffling.

Domenech knows full well that failure to reach World Cup 2010 will leave him jobless, so pressure will be inevitably on his team to perfrom. A World Cup final appearance in 2006 was sandwiched in between two tepid showings at European Championships in 2004 and 2008. Domenech will certainly be aiming to continue his luck at World Cups.

The startling reason for France’s unconvincing route to the play-offs was their offensive impotence. This seems uncanny from a team that contains world class strikers in Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema, not to mention Andre-Pierre Gignac who was Ligue 1’s top scorer last year with 24 goals (seven more than Benzema), and such gifted wingers such as Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda.

Admittedly, their initial form in qualifying was poor, and has improved significantly. Though never in danger of missing out on a play-off spot, they never really produced any form. This should change in the play-offs however. Containing an extremely capable defensive midfield in Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra, France’s strikers have no need to be wary of leaking goals, and can be deployed to go in search of them. France’s attack is clearly coming to the boil more nicely. They are on the road to recovery, but not out of the woods just yet. France won’t be easy opponents, but they can be overcome

Portugal

FIFA World Ranking: 17th (Sep 2009), 10th (Oct 2009)
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
2010 World Cup Qualification Record: Group 1 (containing Denmark, Hungary, Sweden, Albania, Malta) Won 5, Drawn 4, Lost 1.
2010 World Cup Qualification Top Scorer: Simao Sabrosa (Atletico Madrid), 4

Verdict: Portugese fans let out a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday, as they only assured their dream of South Africa was still possible with a 3-0 home defeat of Hungary last Saturday, and Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Malta.  Portugal’s main problem in qualifying was like the French, a lack of goals. If you take out their pair of 4-0 victories over minnows Malta, they have averaged a mere goal a game.

Questions have also been raised of coach Carlos Queiroz, who has used close on 40 players over a 13 month qualifying campaign. He has also employed numerous tactical approaches, a reason as to why Portugal were under pressure at the death of the group. He has also been criticised for using out of form players, namely Deco and Raul Meireles, as well as playing key players out of positions, such as winger Duda at left back, and centre back Pepe as a defensive midfielder.

Possessing magnificent wingers such as C.Ronaldo, Nani and Simao will never guarantee success without an equally able striker to reap the benefits of the aforementioned winger’s exploits. Outside of the aged Nuno Gomes,33, they have only one accomplished striker in the form of Hugo Almeida who plies his trade with Werder Bremen. Other strikers Liedson and Edinho share only 8 caps between them, and so lack vital international and club experience to play at these nail-biting stages.

It would be true to say that the tip of their attack is their Achilles heel, but are well accomplished in all other departments. The guts of their team are actively playing Champions League football with teams featuring in latter stages of the tournament, including Bruno Alves, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Tiago, and Deco.

Though Portugal possess an array of talent capable of setting any showpiece such as the World Cup alight, they are in serious danger of missing out on South Africa.

A World Cup without Cristiano? Watch this space.

Greece

FIFA World Ranking: 12th (Sep 2009), 16th (Oct 2009)
Coach: Otto Rehhagel
Captain: Girogios Karagounis (Panathinikos)
2010 World Cup Qualification Record: Group 2 (containing Switzerland, Latvia, Israel, Luxembourg, Moldova) Won 6, Drawn 2, Lost 2.
2010 World Cup Qualification Top Scorer: Theofanis Gekas (Bayer Leverkusen), 10

Verdict: Greece have only been to one World Cup (1994), and have yet to score a World Cup goal. A 2-1 home win over Luxembourg on Wednesday guaranteed Greece a play-off, and in the view of many, are the weakest of the top seeds in the play-off draw.

We are all aware of their exploits in winning Euro 2004, and undoubtedly the main reason behind that achievement was their cunning German coach, Otto Rehhagel. He is their main hope again in 2009 as Greece hope to make their first World Cup for 16 years.

Rehhagel has installed a never-give-up mentality, and a rigid and tight defence, impenetrable to any side unwilling to go to war over 90 minutes. He has also made his home ties a nightmarish reality for visiting teams, Switzerland were the only team in qualifying who flew out of the South Eastern Country with points.

As well as a determined back row containing Panathinikos’ right back Seitaridis, Liverpool’s giant centre back Krygiakos, as well as veteran Traianos Dellas. Theird midfield possesses a wealth of experience in Basinas, who holds a century of caps for his country, captain Girogios Karagounis, and another Panathinkos star in Kostas Katsournais.

The Greek squad is not short of firepower in Celtic’s Georgios Samaras, Bayer Leverkusen’s Theofanis Gekas, and Angelos Charisteas of Nurenburg, whose winning goal in Euro 2004 made sure Greek hands were laid on Europe’s greatest crown.

Arguably the weakest team on paper in the seeded pot, they still will be no pushovers. Rehhagel is used to winning, and you can be sure he will has his sights set on another major upset in South Africa come next June.

The draw takes place at 13:00 BST on Monday 19 October, in Zurich. A separate draw will take place to see whether the seeded team will be awarded a home draw for the first or second leg. The ties take place on 14th and 18th of November.

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