By Danny Casserly
Ireland kept their quest for Euro 2020 qualification in their own hands, following a 1-1 draw against a much-favoured Switzerland side in Dublin. The visitors took a deserved lead midway through the second half, when Fabian Schar made a marauding run through midfield, before coolly slotting into the bottom corner past Darren Randolph. However, a deflected Irish cross was met by the head of David McGoldrick five minutes from time, whose first international goal guaranteed a point for the home side.
Ireland’s opponents in their qualification group have often spoke of the frustrating nature of playing Ireland. And it’s that frustrating the opponent that Ireland, under Mick McCarthy, have learned to do so well. The final whistle at the Aviva was cheered as if Ireland had won; and for good reason, as the Boys in Green knew they had stolen a point. With only 40% possession and three total shots, David McGoldrick’s header felt somewhat undeserved.
Mick McCarthy referred to his side’s performance as “very Irish” after the match, seeming to indicate that this sort of conservative, eleven men behind the ball approach is how Ireland will play against better teams, hoping to score from counter attacks or set pieces. This mentality may result in McCarthy taking some flak from those who want to see Ireland play flowing, expansive, attacking football. However, the veteran coach seems to realise his side’s limits and has designed the style of play to suit their strengths, namely looking for the towering figure of centre back Shane Duffy on set pieces.
Ironically, it has been McCarthy’s return to the post of manager that has resulted in a breath of fresh air for the Ireland team. The team is playing to their own standard, realising they cannot expect to succeed if they keep trying to outplay superior teams. And with McCarthy set to be replaced by Irish under-21s manager Stephen Kenny in 2020, there isn’t an overwhelming sense of expectation around the Irish setup under McCarthy, something that can’t be said for Giovanni Trapattoni’s time at the helm.
With three group games to go, Ireland sit top of their qualifying group, two points clear of Denmark and three ahead of Switzerland, although the latter are expected to take over top spot given their game in hand over Ireland. Ireland’s run-in is not favourable, with away games against Georgia and Switzerland coming up before the last game at home to Denmark. While Ireland remain in pole position for now, it’ll be a huge achievement for the boys in green to qualify ahead of either Denmark or Switzerland, who are both major tournament regulars.
If Ireland are to qualify, they will need to add more threat going forward. The decision to start David McGoldrick over Shane Long, an international veteran, who is very experienced at leading the line for Ireland, paid off against the Swiss, but more support needs to be given to the striker, particularly from the midfield. Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick can both get forward effectively and need to do so more. If injury-prone midfielders Robbie Brady and James McCarthy can stay fit, it will provide a massive boost to a midfield that resorted to 35-year-old Glenn Whelan against Switzerland. Defensively, if Ireland continue to get heroic performances from the likes of Shane Duffy and Darren Randolph, they’ll give themselves every chance to defy the odds and qualify for their third consecutive European Championships.