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Here's what you need to know about Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifying opponents

The Boys in Green were paired with Switzerland, Denmark, Georgia and Gibraltar in Sunday’s Euro 2020 draw in Dublin.

Damien Duff of Ireland and Ricardo Cabanas of Switzerland pictured competing in a Euro 2004 qualifier.
Damien Duff of Ireland and Ricardo Cabanas of Switzerland pictured competing in a Euro 2004 qualifier.
Image: INPHO

Updated at 12.17

IT’S A LITTLE over 16 years since Mick McCarthy last managed Ireland in a competitive game — a loss to Switzerland that significantly hampered the team’s Euro 2004 qualification hopes and paved the way for the Barnsley native’s departure from the hotseat.

Saipan and a thrilling-if-unsuccessful World Cup last-16 encounter with Spain had happened only a couple of months previously, though it was the former that was in the forefront of the majority of the public’s mind on that fateful night in Dublin, as the crowd chanted the name of Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, who had been infamously banished from the squad in the summer.

Now, it is McCarthy coming into the Ireland set-up following Keane’s departure partially as a result of public demand, and the opponents, coincidentally, are the Swiss again.

While they could not rescue the manager from his unfortunate fate that night, it was an accomplished enough Irish side lining out — Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and Shay Given were young stars on the rise, while Kenny Cunningham, Kevin Kilbane and Gary Kelly were among the team’s solid Premier League pros.

The Ireland of today are unquestionably less talented than they were then — no one in the current squad is anywhere near the level players such as Duff and Keane were at in 2002.

Switzerland, by contrast, are arguably better than ever. While their previous incarnation boasted talented individuals such as Hakan Yakin, they performed abysmally in the subsequent European Championships, picking up just one point and finishing bottom of their group.

The current side appears to have more substance to it. They only suffered a narrow 1-0 loss to Sweden in the World Cup round of 16, while they topped a Nations League group that also featured Belgium and Iceland, advancing to the competition’s semi-finals as a result.

McCarthy half jokingly spoke on Sunday of seeking “revenge” for what happened last time out against the Swiss, though he also described Vladimir Petković’s men as “one of the best teams in Europe”.

Recent results back up such high praise. Switzerland were eighth in the most recent Fifa rankings, with only five European teams ahead of them — Belgium, France, Croatia, England and Portugal.

Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri is bound to be one of the danger men that will attract plenty of pre-match headlines and although Granit Xhaka has not exactly set the world alight since joining Arsenal, the 26-year-old is still playing at a much higher level than any of the Irish midfielders at present.

Others names will be less familiar to English football watchers, though they are not necessarily inferior to the aforementioned duo.

Benfica striker Haris Seferovic hit a hat-trick, as Switzerland came from two-down to stun Belgium 5-2 in the Nations League last month. Ricardo Rodriguez, who also scored in that remarkable win, is a regular at left-back for Milan. 

And 22-year-old attacking midfielder Edimilson Fernandes has been impressing at Fiorentina, ever since moving there on loan from West Ham at the beginning of the season.

Despite their inextricable association with McCarthy, Switzerland are a relative unknown quantity as far as the Boys in Green are concerned, certainly in comparison to the other sides in the group.

In the five years of the Martin O’Neill era alone, in competitive fixtures, Ireland faced Denmark four times, Georgia four times and Gibraltar twice.

The Danes, especially, represent formidable opposition and with the exception of Germany, are arguably the toughest side they could have been drawn with in Pot 2 (Iceland, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria, Wales, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Sweden were the alternatives).

While Ireland have endured a 2018 to forget, winning just one out of nine matches, and scoring just four goals in that time, the Danes look like a team on the up.

Portugal: SL Benfica v CD Feirense - Liga NOS Benfica forward Haris Seferovic is a key player for Switzerland. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

They reached the World Cup round of 16, only losing to eventual finalists Croatia on penalties, while they convincingly beat Wales last month to gain promotion to the top tier of the Nations League.

In addition to the nightmare 5-1 play-off defeat, the Irish team have managed three 0-0 draws with the Danes over the past 12 months, though star man Christian Eriksen completed 90 minutes in just one of the stalemates in question and missed another altogether.

The 0-0 draw in Aarhus saw Denmark extend their unbeaten run at home to 11 games, in a match they dominated from start to finish with 76% possession.

In addition to Tottenham star Eriksen, the likes of Lasse Schöne (Ajax), Thomas Delaney (Borussia Dortmund), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea) and Nicolai Jørgensen (Feyenoord) form part of an impressive supporting cast.

Qualification for next summer’s European U21 Championships suggests the supply line is showing no sign of abating, and with Copenhagen chosen as one of the host cities for Euro 2020, like Ireland, Åge Hareide’s team will be especially determined to secure qualification this time around.

Elsewhere, Georgia are another team most Irish fans will be sick of the sight of. They are not exactly filled with household names — Spartak Moscow playmaker Jano Ananidze is probably their most high-profile individual and was comfortably the best player on the pitch when the sides drew 1-1 in Tbilisi last year.

That game was the first time they had avoided a loss against Ireland on their ninth meeting, a remarkable recurrence when you consider that Georgia’s earliest attempt at qualification for a major tournament was prior to Euro ’96, while they only played their first-ever match in 1990.

Meanwhile, the team’s improving displays against the Irish, with the landmark draw achieved following a couple of near misses, is part of a wider trend.

They dominated their Nations League group, winning five and drawing one of their six matches, thereby progressing to the competition’s third tier, which Ireland were also relegated to. In recent years, they have also taken points away from sides of the calibre of Wales, Scotland and France, in addition to beating Spain in a 2016 friendly.

They certainly won’t be looked upon as a guaranteed six points by Irish fans, as they might have been in the past, with the match in Dublin on 26 March next year likely to be the first big test of McCarthy’s tenure.

And finally, there is Gibraltar, that rare team in which Martin O’Neill’s Irish sides were uncharacteristically free-scoring against, racking up an 11-0 aggregate outcome in two Euro 2016 qualifiers against the minnows.

However , like Georgia, they too appear to have improved in recent years. After 22 consecutive defeats, Julio César Ribas’ side picked up their first-ever competitive win in international football last October, overcoming Armenia — who featured Arsenal star Henrikh Mkhitaryan — 1-0 in the Uefa Nations League. They had prevailed for the first time ever at international level the previous March, as the beat Latvia 1-0 in a friendly, and they secured a second competitive victory, defeating Liechtenstein 2-1, just three days after the Armenian triumph.

Since those two improbable victories though, the British Overseas Territory have reverted to type somewhat, suffering a 6-2 home defeat against Armenia last month, as well as a 4-0 loss away in Macedonia.

McCarthy suggested on Sunday that he would like to start his tenure with a winnable game, and Gibraltar seemingly represents the perfect opportunity to get off to a positive start — despite the minnows’ recent flirtation with success, anything other than three points for the Republic would be an unmitigated disaster.

But the Gibraltarians aside, the group will not be easy for Ireland, with a potential need to rely on the Nations League play-offs (more info on which can be found here) to qualify for Euro 2020 if a top-two spot in the group cannot be secured.

That said, Mick McCarthy has made a managerial career out of helping teams punch above their weight, most notably ahead of the 2002 World Cup, when he guided the Boys in Green to qualification despite being paired with two of the best sides in Europe at the time — Portugal and Holland.

But given the current limitations at his disposal and the strength of the opposition, securing a spot at the upcoming tournament would surely be on a par with anything the former Wolves and Sunderland manager achieved in his first stint as Ireland boss.

Originally published at 06.00

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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