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Qualification for 2012 will be far from easy

Of course, O'Donoghue has been on the road with Ireland a long time. He's seen the way so-called pushover countries can turn over the boys in green on any given night and was absolutely correct in reacting with some trepidation to the news Giovanni Trapattoni will be sizing up Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra. Notwithstanding the fact the draw could have been a lot, lot worse, it's still amazing to behold the national arrogance about our prospects in international arena. As usual, it begs the question: "Who do we think we are?"

Here's what our eastern European opponents know of us. The last time we qualified for the business end of this championship, Macedonia, Slovakia and Armenia didn't exist as independent nations, and Russia was still lording it as the engine room of the Soviet Union. By the time Group B is sorted out, quarter of a century will have passed since Gary Mackay's famous goal sent us on our way to Euro '88. Everybody seems to conveniently forget this is not the type of pedigree that frightens teams. We aren't one of those nations that "always" qualifies. We are one of those nations that hardly ever qualifies.

Imagine how the Macedonians must feel when they see reports about the Irish being a bit upset about the box office implications of Group B while being very happy about the football implications. The FAI is right to be worried about the economic fall-out from what is a disastrous draw in monetary terms. However, the accompanying hubris that entails John Delaney and his cohorts apparently shrugging their shoulders, happy in the knowledge any losses will be recouped when qualification is secured, is stunning.

The record speaks for itself. We aren't good at qualifying. We don't specialize in closing the deal or getting the job done. The last time we reached the finals of anything we did so on the back of a once-in-a-generation talent named Roy Keane. Any cant about him missing the second leg in Tehran is faintly ridiculous. He'd single-handedly dragged McCarthy's side to that play-off over the course of the previous year and a bit. In case anybody is paying attention, the R Keane who remains in the Irish squad won't be sending shudders down the spines of the Russians and the Slovakians.

A glance at the not always reliable barometer of the FIFA rankings reveals that the Slovakians and ourselves are more or less equals. Obviously, they are doing better just now as they embark on a trip to the World Cup. They also boast more technically gifted players in just about every position as, for some reason, the average Irish footballer continues to ape his touch-deficient English colleagues in this regard. This could explain why they recorded away wins over Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic on their way to South Africa. Whatever about coming away from Windsor Park with three points, bringing anything back from a clash with their neighbors in Prague is mighty impressive.

Then there are the Russians. They are better than us and the confidence emanating from the Irish camp about them appears to stem from the belief Guus Hiddink will leave as manager and that this team is on a downward cycle. There may be truth in both those ideas but again, their recent record hardly bodes well for Ireland's chances. Their two losses in World Cup qualifying were single-goal defeats to eventual group winners Germany. No disgrace there. Factor in their play-off exit came on the away goals rule and all of a sudden, one wonders where the talk about their disintegration comes from.

At least Trapattoni and the others were willing to afford that pair of opponents some respect during the various interviews last Sunday. The Macedonians were more or less taken for granted. Well, it would be a brave man who'd fancy Ireland's chances of winning in Skopje. Apart from the fact any team with Paul McShane in it can't look with confidence toward any fixture anywhere, there's the matter of history. The Macedonians have done well against Ireland in the past and will fancy their chances of doing so again. Why wouldn't they think themselves capable of an upset? After all, we think we should be group favourites for no other reason than rank bad defending and poor refereeing cost us the chance of a penalty shoot-out in Paris last year.

Even lowly Armenia pose a tricky enough assignment. A few months back they turned over Belgium at home in Yereven to record the greatest result in their short history. Trapattoni's Ireland is a better outfit than a Belgian side at its lowest recent ebb but how much better? Do you think the Armenians (who lost just 2-1 to Spain in the same campaign) are going to be scared about the imminent arrival of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews?

Once the dust settles, this draw can be viewed the same way as just about every draw in recent memory. Against three opponents not dissimilar to themselves, Ireland has a good shot at finishing second in the group and reaching the play-offs, a stage that we now know is a complete lottery and/or, depending on what you believe, a dastardly FIFA/UEFA/Adidas conspiracy. To do better than that will require beating serious opponents away from home and this, unfortunately, is a task that has lately proved beyond all Irish teams.

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