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Prepare for 'twists and turns' as Ireland set off on the road to Russia

If the Boys in Green are to make it to the 2018 World Cup, there are sure to be a few bumps along the way.

Some of the Irish players arrive out onto the pitch this evening.
Some of the Irish players arrive out onto the pitch this evening.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ben Blake reports from the Red Star Stadium in Belgrade

WITH ONE successful qualifying campaign under his belt, you would like to think that Martin O’Neill has a better understanding of what’s in store heading into his second one.

Friday marked two years since the Derryman took charge of an international team in a competitive match for the first time.

That night in Tbilisi, Georgia looked set to frustrate Ireland thanks to Tornike Okriashvili’s equaliser until Aiden McGeady pulled a moment of magic out of the bag (admittedly, his last meaningful contribution in a green jersey) to rescue three points in time added on.

Despite the positive start, setbacks against the Scots were to follow and it wasn’t until the latter stages of the campaign that Ireland peaked with the famous win over world champions Germany to drag themselves back into contention when all looked lost at one point.

O’Neill negotiated the two-legged tie with Bosnia-Herzegovina brilliantly, and showed enough at the Euros this summer for fans to take encouragement ahead of the next two-year cycle, which rolls into motion on Monday night.

“We have a lot of desire in the team and we showed a lot of ability in France,” said O’Neill at his pre-match press conference, before declaring:

But that competition is now over and it’s a matter of starting again.

“Everyone starts fresh and everyone thinks they’ve got a chance of qualifying for the World Cup. The game itself will be exceptionally difficult.”

Martin O'Neill O'Neill taking questions at the Red Star Stadium. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Last time out, Ireland ended up in a Group D which looked one of the most difficult to call before a ball was kicked. Well for World Cup 2018, see Euro 2016 as any one of four (Wales, Albania, Serbia and Ireland) could conceivably come away as group winners.

After tomorrow’s opener, it’s back to Dublin for a very winnable game against Georgia next month before two more away matches — first Moldova on 9 October, then a meeting with Austria in Vienna on 12 November.

Unlike for Euro 2016, which saw two teams qualify and the third make the play-offs thanks to the newly-enlarged 24-team tournament, Ireland will need to finish top to guarantee their involvement in Russia in two years’ time.

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All the runners-ups with the exception of the nation with the lowest point tally will earn a play-off place.

O’Neill has predicted another tight campaign due to the competitiveness of the teams involved and says the plan once again will be to make sure they’re in contention heading into the final couple of rounds.

“We’re sitting here on the eve of the start of the competition and there will be a lot of twists and turns — as there were in the Euros qualifiers,” he predicts.

“There is only one team (from each group) certain of qualification so you’ve got to set your mind to that, as will Serbia, Austria and every single side.

“If you were to go to Georgia tonight, they will be thinking ‘okay, these games are difficult, but we can win our home matches and grab points away from home’.

“Everyone will be going in with that mindset. After three or four matches, you look at it from a different view point.

Three of our first four games are away from home. We need to stay in the competition before we do anything else.

“These are tough matches — away to Serbia, home to Georgia, away to Moldova and away to Austria.

“I think this will be so tight that teams will take points from each other and we could end up with the lowest points total but if you finish top then does that matter?”

You lead us to Russia and you’re welcome to do it any which way you like, Martin.

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Ben Blake

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