Last week saw the qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia begin.
It will be a long road for all the nations and it would be great to see a good representation from the home nations. My focus as you know always falls on the Irish, after the summer that the Republic of Ireland recently had in the European Championships in France there is optimism around the squad and also the country for the 2018 World Cup.
Martin O'Neill and his squad will have to navigate through a tough group which includes Serbia, Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Unlike England, Martin O'Neill has only a small panel of players to pick from and injuries will play a big part along the way. I expect the competition for the one qualifying spot to be fought out between Serbia, Austria, Wales and the Republic. A lot of points will be won and lost when these four all play each other and to win your home games will set you up for a chance to qualify, what you pick up on the road will seal the deal.
First up for Ireland was a tricky trip to Belgrade to face Serbia. It was a game that the Irish dare not lose and after the referee passed the pitch playable at 6.15pm, rain had fallen all day long in Belgrade and it was really touch and go, it was game on for Martin O'Neill and his players. Jeff Hendrick got Ireland off to a flying start after only three minutes when he scored his first international goal, mind you Ivanovic did get the final touch before it entered the net. What was to develop over the next 59 minutes was not only poor, but very frustrating. Ireland seemed to sit very deep and invite the Serb's onto them. Now it is unclear to me and a few other pundits as to whether this was a tactic O'Neill used to try and hold a lead, surely not as the Irish goal came so early in the game.
The Serbian side came forward and pounded the Irish back four. In the 62nd minute they got a well deserved equaliser when Kostic tucked the ball home after the Irish back four was pulled totally apart. After the Serbian equaliser, Ireland did not change anything tactically and simply could not string a pass together to try and calm the Serbian storm.
In fact throughout the whole game Ireland only put 94 passes together where as Serbia found each other 361 times, a really poor performance in my opinion. The stat alone tells you the amount of pressure the Irish were under and in the 69th minute went two one down after Tadic converted a very soft penalty awarded by the Hungarian referee. Two goals in seven minutes had turned the game on its head and a possible rout was on the cards. The Irish team had been totally outplayed for much of the game but the second Serb goal seemed to ignite an Irish fight back.
O'Neill's men got the ball down and started to come out and play a bit. The Irish equaliser came from a Daryl Murphy header from a corner, the marking was all over the place and Murphy duly took advantage of it. This was also Murphy's first international goal and it had taken nine years to arrive. Martin O'Neill was delighted after the game with the point and passed on all the plaudits to his team. One thing you can say about O'Neill is that he stands behind his team in public, but I wonder what was said after the game in the dressing room, as in my opinion it was a very poor performance and the tactics used were wrong.
Elsewhere in Ireland's group there were wins for Wales and Austria who had victories over Moldova and Georgia in that order. Every point in this group will be vital and on reflection the Irish result in Belgrade was brilliant. Before the match I was hoping for a draw and seeing how the game developed the draw was all the more sweeter. This group is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride and next up for Ireland on October 6th is Georgia in Dublin. Three points are required from that game and Martin O'Neill knows that, Ireland can not afford to sit back, they have to take the game to the Georgian's and be on the front foot from the off. The Ireland manager must surely start Wes Hoolohan if he is fit, this guy can open up defences and we can be sure Georgia will come to Dublin to try and spoil the party. The anticipation is already building up in Ireland for the game and let us hope the Irish take all three points to keep the momentum going along the road to Russia 2018 World Cup.