Monday, 26 November 2007

A stiff test, but cause for optimism

After I’d passed a frustrating afternoon spent with an ear on Radio Five Live and an eye on Tolstoy’s Master and Man, the BBC finally transferred to Durban and transmitted, frankly confusing coverage of yesterday’s 2010 World Cup draw. In fairness to the broadcaster the bloated, unwieldy and interminable manner of the occasion did not lend itself to an efficient or indeed brief programme.

I soon aborted an attempt to comprehensively note down the groups as they were drawn, scotched by the BBC’s late arrival and the babble of their commentary for an event which is reasonably self-explanatory. Therefore it was left to the presenter to inform me of the composition of Northern Ireland’s group as he insisted on talking over the main draw proceedings.

As the dust settled, it emerged that Northern Ireland would face the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and San Marino. This is an extremely tough draw and far from ideal. Slovakia and Slovenia are arguably the toughest possible opponents from their respective pools and on the last occasion we faced the top two teams they both inflicted defeats both home and away.

With our improved form in recent years, however, the squad will fancy their chances of taking points in any of the group matches. The Czechs are marvellously efficient qualifiers who eased through the breakaway association’s group with consummate ease. On this occasion though they may face a stiffer Irish test. In the last World Cup qualifying campaign, our early optimism was decimated by Poland who inflicted a 3-0 home defeat on a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon. But they now face a much improved Northern Irish team and the IFA should refrain from offering them such amenable scheduling on this occasion.

Slovakia and Slovenia are the archetypal opposition against which we tend to underachieve. They are the Latvia and Iceland of the new campaign. It is vital that we begin to put these types of teams to the sword if we are actually to qualify for a tournament. Needless to say 6 points will be expected out of the San Marino games.

Coupled with the ease of travel to these destinations Northern Ireland fans have reason to remain optimistic. We have played two of the sides in recent qualification series, but the Czech Republic and Poland aways remain two of my best trips on GAWA duty.

No comments: