The time is right for the great Irish Bale out
THE Republic of Ireland’s flagging World Cup qualification campaign was given a real shot in the arm yesterday with a promising injury update.
The news didn’t involve a member of Martin O’Neill’s squad – it was even better than that as Gareth Bale was ruled out of Wales’s last two games in Group D, including Monday night’s crunch clash in Cardiff.
The Welsh very much hold the upper hand in the race for second place behind Serbia after a very good September for them and a disastrous one for Ireland.
One point from two games, in Georgia and at home to the Serbs, sees O’Neill’s men sitting in third in a section they looked likely to win at one stage, having picked up nine points from their first four games, which included away ties in Austria and Serbia.
All momentum has gone out of their quest to reach Russia since then, with only three points garnered in the last four games and a series of insipid performances testing the patience of even the most loyal of supporters.
The Republic are a point behind the Welsh and know that nothing short of six points from the last two games, at home to Moldova on Friday and then away in Cardiff, will be good enough to make sure of a place in the play-offs.
Four points might well secure second in the group, but that would leave Ireland in real danger of being the worst runner-up across Europe and on the outside looking in when the play-off draw is made.
Therefore, the aim is clear. Two wins. And no matter how you dress it up, that task has been made easier by the withdrawal of Bale from Chris Coleman’s squad, for whom Friday’s game in Georgia has suddenly become a lot more difficult.
That game kicks off at 5pm, with Ireland going into battle at 7.45pm against a Moldova side that prop up Group D with just two points from eight games.
O’Neill will be publicly telling everyone that he won’t be focussing on the result in Tbilisi, but should Wales fail to secure three points, as Ireland did last month, the Kilrea man’s team-talk on Friday evening would get a lot easier.
That said, the main aim for Ireland is to avoid any slip-ups at the Aviva, therefore ensuring they go to Cardiff knowing it’s all to play for against a team missing their most influential player.
And the bookies are in no doubt Ireland will win on Friday, despite their recent loss of form, with Boylesports going a best price of 1/10.
There is clearly no juice in that, and it might be a bit harder than the layers think, especially with key attacking players Robbie Brady and James McClean both suspended.
I’m hoping that could be a blessing in disguise as both will be well rested for the Welsh game, and if Ireland can’t beat Moldova without them they really don’t deserve to be in the qualifcation shake-up.
As is the Irish way, they might take a while to hit their stride in this one, and I’m not expecting a big score by any means.
However, with central defenders Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy in good form at club level, a clean sheet shouldn’t be too much to ask, so my idea of the best bet is a 2-0 home win at 9/2 with 888sport.com, while Tommy French go 17/5 about a draw at half-time and an away win at full-time which could be worth a look.
Finally, I picked the wrong centre-back when I chose Clark for the first goal in Georgia last month and Duffy popped up to put his side ahead early on.
But with creativity in short supply it might well take a set-piece to get things going, so there are worse ideas than backing both of them at 16/1 (Boylesoorts) for the the first goal this time round.
I’m in little doubt that the Republic will do enough to ensure a victory in Wales would get them second in the group, although that objective would be made easier if the Welsh do slip up in Georgia.
And without Bale that is a real possibility.
Wales have drawn five of their eight games in Group D, and have only beaten Moldova on their travels, while the teams claimed a point each when they played in Cardiff last October.
Georgia are an improving team who are unbeaten in five games, including draws in their last three qualifiers.
There will not be much in this at all and while it might be a little bit of wishful thinking, the 23/10 offered by Tommy French about a draw is well worth a flutter.
REIGNING world champions Germany visit Belfast tomorrow night and in many respects Northern Ireland can treat this as a glamorous exhibition game.
Barring a ridiculous turn of events, the Germans will top Gorup F and the North will be in the play-offs for Russia, yet Michael O’Neill has vowed to play his strongest side despite the risk of suspensions for the final group game in Norway on Sunday.
O’Neill will be keen to find out just how good his team are after a stunning qualifying campaign that has seen them win six of their eight games and concede only two goals, away to Germany last October.
Northern Ireland are one of the most organised teams in Europe and their togetherness more than makes up for a lack of star quality.
Germany have big names in abundance and Group F has been a stroll thus far, but this is likely to be their toughest game and even though Joachim Low will be confident, he won’t take it lightly as his side can throw in an odd shocker on the road, as they did in Dublin not so long ago.
Germany are 2/7 chances, with Northern Ireland 12/1 in places and that latter price might tempt a few, while the 3/1 offered by Bet365 about the draw/NI double chance might be worth a look.
However, the best idea could be to back Northern Ireland plus two at evens with Boylesports, as there won’t be much in this at all, while the 23/10 quoted by the same firm about under 2.5 goals being scored in the game is good value.
Meanwhile, England have run away with Group F and their old enemies Scotland will be hoping they can do them a favour with a home win over Slovenia.
If that happens, the Scots can go second ahead of the final round of games if they can see off Slovakia in Glasgow.
Gordon Strachan’s men have enjoyed a renaissance on the back of a great draw at home to England in June and that momentum and a vociferous Hampden Park crowd can carry them to a third win on the bounce.
Scotland are a great bet at 7/5 with Paddy Power, while I also like the 3/1 about Leigh Griffiths scoring in a home success.
The Celtic man broke his international duck with two free-kicks against England and his confidence has never been higher.
He could make the difference tomorrow night and put the Scots in the driving seat for the play-offs.