By Michael Walker
Generally when footballers and managers start saying something is mathematically possible, the game is up. For the Republic of Ireland, the visit of Germany to Croke Park next Saturday night was always going to be an occasion, and it should be despite the state of Group D, but almost all of the meaning of this glamorous match drained away in depressing fashion in Prague and Bratislava last month.
Needing four points from that double-header, Steve Staunton's team came away with one. The circumstances of the draw in Slovakia and the defeat in the Czech Republic were hardly encouraging either. A last-minute goal conceded against the Slovaks was followed by the Stephen Ireland "Grannygate" saga and Stephen Hunt's dismissal against the Czechs, while Staunton's selections and substitutions were questioned again by fans, pundits and even former playing colleagues who have tried to protect the beleaguered Irish manager.
The days after had an obituary feel and the sense of despair forced John Delaney of the Football Association of Ireland to publicly support Staunton, who is contracted to the next World Cup.
But that might not be enough should the Republic's remaining three games reveal insufficient evidence that Staunton is moulding a team and a squad capable of doing better in a World Cup campaign. Where the Republic would go next – and who they could afford – is uncertain, so for Staunton, starting with Germany, the games are far from meaningless.
"Qualification is out of our hands," he said. "We have to finish the group off as best we can because we know the more victories we get, the higher seeding we'll have for the World Cup qualifiers and that is a priority as well.
"Playing two games in Croke Park is enough motivation for the players. We'll be going out to win these two games. The players are fully motivated, they know the importance of the matches and, mathematically, we're not out of it so we're not giving up the ghost."
As managers do, Staunton has "taken the positives" from the Czech and Slovak displays and with 80,000 expected at Croke Park there will be no hiding place for Irish players who know deep down that qualification is over. "It doesn't feel flat," said the Irish goalkeeper Shay Given of the occasion with Germany.
"It's at Croke Park and it'll still be a massive game. Obviously the last two results were disappointing, especially when Slovakia scored in the last minute, that was a real kick in the teeth. We still had to respond and try to beat the Czech Republic but we had a man sent off and we couldn't do that either. We still made chances down to 10 men and it's mathematically possible to still qualify. So we have to go out there against Germany and try to get the three points because if we don't the party's over. We do know it's out of our hands but if we don't win our game we have no chance."
The maths are that the Irish win their last three games against Germany and Cyprus at home and then in Wales, and the Czechs do not win again. That seems unlikely. Having missed out on qualification for the last World Cup by a point, it would appear the Irish have gone backwards. Yet they finished fourth then behind France, Switzerland and Israel and third place is now a feasible target. Any victory would help future campaigns.
"Finishing second behind Germany was realistic because the Czech Republic are [not] the team they used to be," added Given. "It's frustrating, but people would say the team we have is young and inexperienced. This will help them in the next qualifiers, players like Aiden McGeady. In the future that gives us a chance."Reuse content