It may have seemed a little premature, given that the race to reach the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine is far from resolved, but on Saturday evening FIFA conducted the preliminary draw for the World Cup in 2014. The tournament will take place in Brazil and Northern Ireland supporters now know the hurdles which their team will face if it is to defy the odds and make it to Rio.
Predictably it’s not going to be easy.
First out of the pot in Group F was little Luxembourg. In theory the lowest ranked team needs to offer up a simple 6 points, if we have any aspirations of qualifying. Mind you we saw how that can easily go awry in the Faroe Islands last autumn. Luxembourg is not the worst side in European football by a long stretch, that title’s reserved for San Marino, and they form exactly the type of stumbling block which Northern Ireland has traditionally failed to avoid.
The 5th seed in our group is Azerbaijan. In the 2006 qualifying tournament we took 4 points out of our 2 games against the Azeris. A scoreless draw in Baku was disappointing, but the 2-0 win at Windsor Park set Northern Ireland up for an astonishing victory against England the following Wednesday. It could’ve been very different though, with Stuart Elliott’s opener coming well into the 2nd half.
Can we get 12 points from our games against these teams? In theory there is no reason why not. Mind you historically we’ve had problems achieving that sort of consistency. I’d imagine 10 points out of 12 would be considered a satisfactory return.
Then we get into the teams ranked above us.
Israel sits third in their Euro 2012 qualifying group. Although it’s fair to say that their group isn’t as strong as Northern Ireland’s. Still, the Israelis will fancy their chances at Windsor Park. They can claim a number of stars who play in England or Spain, but other than Chelsea’s Yossi Benayoun they are not household names. Really we ought at least to be fighting it out with Israel for 3rd place.
To manage one of the top two spots will be desperately difficult. The form book suggests that they should go to Russia and Portugal.
I’m delighted that we’ve drawn Russia, as it should provide an opportunity to visit the country again, but they are an extremely strong side and will be desperate to reach the World Cup in Brazil, as a prelude to their own turn as hosts in 2018. Although another big name gets far more attention, for my money the Russian captain, Arshavin, is the best player Northern Ireland are likely to face in this qualification campaign. The Arsenal man is enormously talented and creative. He tends to play just behind Tottenham’s Roman Pavlyuchenko and between them they comprise a formidable goal threat.
Portugal of course are no slouches either. They currently top their group in the Euros, albeit that they’ve shown they aren’t immune to the odd hiccup. A 4-4 draw against Cyprus and a 1-0 defeat against an aging Norway team will give Northern Ireland some hope. Mind you the Portuguese squad is a roll call of famous names from some of the biggest leagues in Europe. And they have a forward who plays for Real Madrid who has a decent reputation.
So a difficult group, but as I commented on Facebook on Saturday night, they’re all difficult for Northern Ireland. It contains no team which, on a good night, we cannot beat - particularly at Windsor Park. We've avoided some of the very best and we've avoided sides whose lowly ranking belies their actual ability.