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Prospect of win in Georgia puts Ireland tantalisingly close to Euro 2020 qualification

It won’t be straightforward, but should Ireland win tonight, they will dance out of Tbilisi…Flatley-style.

“IRELAND PLAY FOOTBALL, if I can say, like Michael Flatley dances.” 

Georgia manager Vladimir Weiss there, injecting a bit of life into the jaded genre that is the Georgia v Ireland pre-match press conference. 

mick-mccarthy Mick McCarthy during training at the Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi on the eve of the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This was less a comment on Ireland’s grace but instead a more creative way of praising Ireland’s energy and intensity. Given that this is the sixth time Weiss has looked ahead to a game with Ireland – twice with Slovakia, and now a fourth tine with Georgia – he has had plenty of time to workshop material. 

Mick McCarthy was flattered.

“I thought he meant we had good feet when we got the ball. I think when someone describes you as someone who is as brilliant as Michael Flatley, such a wonderful performer and dancer, and a good guy, actually, I will take that as a huge compliment of my team.”

McCarthy has met Flatley as Irish manager – he hailed him as a “gentleman” on the Late Late Show in 1998 – and Flatley invited some of the Irish players to drown their sorrows after the 2002 World Cup defeat to Spain in Suwon. Flatley had been performing in Nice, but with the knockout stages looming in South Korea, he jumped on a couple of planes as, according to Matt Holland, “he just had to watch the boys.”

Source: CR's Video Vaults/YouTube

 

McCarthy is back with Ireland now, aiming to give Flatley another compelling reason to “watch the boys.”

This afternoon is an enormous opportunity to make that happen. It looked like Ireland would have to win at least one of their four games against Denmark and Switzerland, but the Danes’ goalless draw away to Georgia last month has opened up a route for Ireland. 

Another couple of draws against those top teams – even a draw and a defeat in Geneva – could be enough to qualify if Ireland can win today in Tbilisi. 

If.

While Ireland have never lost to Georgia, they drew their last game in Tbilisi and rarely enjoy themselves when they’re winning.

If Flatley’s Riverdance was a moment for Ireland to take her place among the rest of the nations of the Earth, football games with Georgia are often a flattening reminder of where we actually stand in the world. 

“We’re not Brazil or Portugal”, said Giovanni Trapattoni after his first competitive game in charge, an imperfect 2-1 win over Georgia in Mainz. “We are Ireland.” 

By the time the return game at Croke Park came around – in which Ireland were gifted a win thanks to a very suspect penalty – Trap had narrowed his terms of reference. “We are not Brazil, we are Ireland.” 

Georgia have traditionally represented that uneasy prospect – a game that Ireland are expected to impose themselves upon and win.

It’s not exactly our wheelhouse. Of Ireland’s eight competitive wins over Georgia, only one of them has been by more than a single goal. And that was back in 2003.

a-view-of-training A view of Irish training yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The most recent trip to Tbilisi ended in a 1-1 draw, the night that Shane Duffy brought the phrase ‘maybe we scored too early’ into the realm of Irish footbll infamy already occupied by the likes of “We’re better in March” and “They asked for that, really!”

Ireland took the lead early on that occasion and then lost control of the match, which fitted snugly a recurring template for Irish games in the latter days of Martin O’Neill: if we couldn’t press our backs to the wall, we couldn’t remember how to stand up. 

Weiss spoke of how he needs to gather momentum across the end of this campaign for that play-off in the spring, while his side seem genuinely motivated to “create history” by finally beating Ireland for once. 

They are undoubtedly improving. They held Denmark to a draw last month, and topped their League D Nations League group and so are guaranteed to be one of four teams in a play-off for a Euro 2020 spot through that competition’s byzantine backdoor.

Ireland’s 1-0 win against Georgia in March was probably their most complete performance of the campaign so far, but there were warning signs flashing in that game too. Ireland wilted badly in the final stages, and Jaba Kankava struck the post with five minutes to go. 

The Irish side tonight will show changes from that game, but they are unlikely to be revolutionary.

David McGoldrick is injured, and James Collins looks to be the front-runner to replace him. Robbie Brady started that night too, but he’s not in this squad and Callum Robinson is likely to continue on the right. James McClean has shaken off his back issue and will start on the left. 

conor-hourihane-celebrates-scoring-a-goal-with-robbie-brady-shane-duffy-and-richard-keogh Conor Hourihane is mobbed by team-mates after scoring against Georgia in March. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The midfield trio of Whelan, Hendrick, and Hourihane looks unlikely to change, and Shane Duffy’s return to fitness means the change to the back four won’t be as drastic as it might have been.

Richard Keogh will be replaced by John Egan, while there are two players vying to replace the suspended Enda Stevens at left-back: Matt Doherty and Blackburn’s Derrick Williams, neither of whom playing that position for their clubs.

Doherty last played on the left for Wolves three years ago, while Williams has this season shifted right to become a centre-back. Williams’ more recent experience in that position means he might just nudge Doherty out of the frame. 

As for Aaron Connolly, the one great unknown in this absurdly familiar fixture? He may make his debut from the bench, and the fact that the second question the local Georgia press asked McCarthy was whether Connolly would play shows his Premier League exploits have sent ripples thousands of miles away.

Ireland’s position in the group will be much clearer by tonight, after they snatch what they can from Georgia and Denmark and Switzerland face off in Copenhagen, three hours after the Irish kick-off. 

If Ireland win and Denmark don’t, another heroic draw with the Danes on the final day will be enough to secure qualification regardless of what happens on Tuesday in Geneva. 

Of course, if Ireland win today and again against the Swiss on Tuesday, they will qualify with a game to spare. 

McCarthy, however, has said he won’t look beyond this afternoon, and hinted at what became his predecessors’ post-game lament in saying Ireland need to retain possession well, to deal with the 25-degree heat if nothing else. 

Tbilisi is the cauldron in which no Irish pretensions usually survive, but if Ireland can today forge the win that Denmark couldn’t then their Euro 2020 hopes will be more than just alive. 

They will be gloriously, tantalisingly real. 

Georgia possible: Loria; Kakabadze, Kashia, Khocholava, Navalovski; Kiteishvili, Kankava; Lobzhanidze, Ananidze, Okriashvili; Kvilitaia

Republic of Ireland possible: Randolph; Coleman, Duffy, Egan, Williams; Whelan, Hendrick, Hourihane; Robinson, Collins, McClean

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney  / reports from Tbilisi, Georgia

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