FIFA World Cup Qualifying Preview – September 2017: Ireland Face Stern Tests
Fifteen years after last appearing in the FIFA World Cup, Ireland are potentially just one match away from returning to the biggest stage in world football after a long-overdue revival. The ‘Luck of the Irish’ has always been prevalent whenever the Emerald Isle has been granted a presence in the tournament proper, with the country never failing to proceed from the group stage.
Over the course of a weekend that could define Ireland’s FIFA World Cup fate, two contrasting setups are likely to be implemented by Martin O’Neill. Firstly, O’Neill’s men will make the arduous trip to Georgia on 2 September, whereupon nothing can be taken for granted. Though Georgia are as good as out of the running to qualify for the final tournament, and lost 1-0 to Ireland in the reverse game, an Ireland squad now without the winner of that match (Seamus Coleman) squad cannot fail to realise that their hosts have nothing to lose.
Identifying danger men for Georgia is difficult, given their propensity to play as a unit when faced with an impossible task. Although perhaps less skilled than Ireland’s usual central midfielders, Georgia captain Jaba Kankava is a no-nonsense, hard-hitting defensive midfielder, who is as battle-scarred as it gets and will make the construction of meaningful moves from Ireland a frustrating affair. Based on the goals-per-game metric, Georgia’s main ‘danger man’ would be Tornike Okriashvili, the Krasnodar midfielder who has a return of seven goals in thirty-four appearances for his country.
A home match with Serbia comes next for Ireland on 5 September, with the reverse encounter having ended 2-2. Once more a Premier League player, Aleksandar Mitrović stands out as a very real threat to Ireland’s defence, as does Southampton midfielder Dusan Tadic, who is known for being an accomplished penalty taker. The fact that Ireland managed a draw away to Serbia one year ago bodes well for their FIFA World Cup qualification hopes in what was widely considered a tough group when the draw was made. With home advantage this time around, Martin O’Neill’s men have every chance of going into October’s two deciding qualifiers in a strong position.