When UEFA decided to expand the number of teams that would participate in Euro 2016, fans from some of bigger nations moaned that this would make qualifying a procession, removing any sense of danger and from the next two years.
For some — England and Italy most notably — that’s how it’s panned out. Others — notably Spain and Germany — have stuttered but both will probably be alright. The Netherlands are in real trouble, but at least have the safety net of a playoff if they finish behind Iceland and the Czech Republic. But what the revamped qualifying has done is reinvigorate that middle tier of nations.
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And that’s what makes Friday’s meeting of Scotland and Ireland (live, 2:45 p.m. ET) so fascinating. They are members of a whole tranche of countries for whom qualification has been a distant dream. Teams such as these needed everything to go right almost from the start. Two quick defeats, or silly dropped points at home against a weaker side, and their chances are gone. Now there is a belief among both sides that they ought to at least get in the playoffs.
Both Scotland and Ireland — home nations for whom the game means so much — are sides showing real life after fallow periods. Gordon Strachan has brought a sense of pride to Scotland and, while almost anybody would have been perceived as restoring life to Ireland after the soporific end to Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign, the fact that he was replaced by a personality as large as Martin O’Neill, with Roy Keane as his deputy, has enhanced the sense of rejuvenation.
Unfortunately for them, so too are Poland, which is away in Georgia on Friday (live, 2:45 p.m. ET) and tops the group after beating Germany 2-0 in Warsaw last month. Assuming Germany recovers to top the group, that leaves three sides battling for one automatic qualification slot and a playoff place. Somebody will miss out and that’s why Friday’s game is "massive" to use the word favored by the Ireland striker Shane Long.
"It could — and I might be over-reacting here — really make or break how we get on in this campaign," said Long yesterday. "If we don’t get beaten there, it will go a long way towards us qualifying." It’s seems likely that Long will start from the bench with Robbie Keane deployed as a lone striker.
Scotland began the campaign by losing narrowly in Germany, then beat Georgia 1-0 at home before a hard-fought 2-2 away to Poland. A brilliant last-minute Aiden McGeady goal ensured Ireland started with a 2-1 win away to Georgia. They hammered Gibralatar 7-0 and then, stole an improbable point away to Germany as John O’Shea, winning his 100th cap, scored a last-minute equalizer. When Keane was a player at Manchester United and a manager at Sunderland, his sides made a habit of vital late goals; it may be he has brought the knack to Ireland as well.
Sunderland is one of two clubs sides that underlie this fixture. The more significant is Celtic, at whose Parkhead ground the match will be played. Celtic, of course, is the team of the Irish diaspora in Scotland, O’Neill and Strachan both used to manage it, the Scotland captain Scott Brown captains it and McGeady, who is at last beginning to deliver on the enormous promise he once showed, used to play for it.
"I’ve not been back to take charge of a competitive game before," O’Neill said, "But the difference is that although I’m going back to Celtic Park, a place I could call home for several years, and while I might turn right instead of left as we go into the dressing rooms — I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in the away dressing room before — this is a game against Scotland, not against Celtic. So all the nuances end there."
For all he may deny it, the intangible significance of the nexus of interconnection is vast, and is likely to ensure that O’Neill, who is Northern Irish, is cheered, while McGeady and his Everton teammate James McCarthy, as Scottish-born sons of Scottish fathers, are booed. McCarthy is a doubt with a hamstring injury which, given Glenn Whelan hasn’t played since fracturing his leg against Germany last month creates problems for O’Neill in central midfield.
The Sunderland link is more concrete, less in the fact that O’Neill and Keane are both former Sunderland managers than in the fact that O’Shea, the Sunderland captain, is likely to find himself marking Steven Fletcher, the Sunderland center-forward, who has never quite done it at international level but has scored four goals in his last five league games.
"We go at each other week in, week out in training, so it should be good," said Fletcher. "He doesn’t kick me — he can’t get near me! I told him to stay away from my ankles last week."
What happens the next time they meet in training probably depends on Friday night, a game that, unusually for qualifiers at this stage, has been at the back of the minds of all those involved since the last international break. There are still significant doubts about the new format for the Euros, but at the very least it’s made Scotland vs. Ireland matter.