The bad news for Northern Ireland fans, when the draw was made for European Championship qualification, was that three out of our five opponents had made it to the 2010 World Cup finals. The good news is that none of our Group C rivals have performed very well in South Africa.
Most conspicuously, Italy crashed out in the early stages, finishing bottom of a group which, on paper, was rather underwhelming. Northern Ireland fans know very well that Slovakia, who yesterday inflicted a 3-2 defeat on the Italians are a formidable outfit.
Strong, athletic, organised and technically gifted, I was surprised that the Slovaks took so long to get into their stride. The world champions did not disgrace themselves yesterday but two lacklustre displays against Paraguay and New Zealand ensured there was no room for a slip-up.
The team is clearly on the wane, and lacks the guile which Totti and Del Piero so memorably brought to previous Italy sides. There will be retirements after the finals too. Defensive linchpin and team captain, Fabio Cannavaro, is unlikely to experience the Windsor roar.
With another Group C opponent, Serbia, there is not such a definite story of decline. The Serbs let themselves down at this finals. I didn’t get to see their first match, against Ghana, but by all accounts they were dreadful. Against Germany, in contrast, Serbia played well, albeit against ten men, but there was an element of caution which probably prevented a 1-0 victory becoming more comfortable.
The 2-1 defeat against Australia was unlucky, inexplicable, unforgivable. The Serbs were all over the non-football nation for large spells of the match, but failed to convert chances. Ultimately, with the talent at Serbia’s disposal, there was no excuse not to beat the Aussies and beat them well.
Slovenia’s tournament, meanwhile, started hopefully, with a 1-0 defeat of Algeria. Midway through the next game, against the US, the former Yugoslav Republic was two up, and coasting into the next round. The Americans came back, to draw 2-2 and, frankly, the Slovenes were under power against England.
Northern Ireland’s first two competitive games in the Autumn will be against the Slovenes, away, and Italy, at home. In the world cup qualifying tournament we lost by 2 late goals in Slovenia, having looked the better team for large spells of the game. At Windsor Park, the roles were reversed, when Slovenia dominated, but Warren Feeney grabbed a second half winner.
In theory, Northern Ireland should have nothing to fear in either match. Two good performances should secure two good results. In my book, Serbia is the group favourite, not withstanding Italy’s better world ranking, but the Serbs showed enough signs of fragility to encourage Nigel Worthington too.