After two years of huffing and puffing eight national teams now face the knock-out drama of the play-offs to decide the last four nations for France, Euro 2016. It will require a completely different mind set for the two-legged encounters which generally benefit the sides that play their second leg at home. That is why Martin O`Neill will relish Dublin support for his men in green for the second game against their opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It is the first time these two nations will have met in a competitive game although in 2012 a Shane Long goal was enough to settle a friendly. Long, who achieved world prominence with his match winner against Germany is a doubt for the play-offs after sustaining an ankle injury though Martin O`Neill is hopeful of the Southampton man recovering in time. His presence could be crucial because the Irish will be without two key players, through suspension; John O`Shea and Jon Walters though the Stoke man may be more of a loss than the Irish skipper because he does come up with some key goals.
Ireland will also be hoping that Shay Given can sign off on an incredible international career, in France, by recovering from the ankle injury that kept him out of the defeat in Poland. His experience and previous sampling of Euro play-offs gives him and the Irish an enormous edge.
Bosnia-Herzegovina will not just be making up the numbers in this tie. They are more than just a one man team and Edin Dzeko, with seven of the 17 qualifying goals, will severely test a back line bereft of the leadership of John O`Shea.
Bosnia has never before qualified for a European championship finals but are a form team having won five out of their last six games and were very impressive in coming from behind to beat Cyprus 3-2.
If stats are anything to go by the Irish will be mindful that five of their previous seven punts at play-offs ended in failure. But the Irish thrive on adversity and despite the team comprising, with respect, average Premier League players plus Robbie Keane, if they can do a job in the first game the fervour in Dublin should see them through.
Who will ever forget the injustice of The Hand of Henry denying the Irish a place in the 2010 World Cup. For that reason alone the Irish must go through, ironically, to France!
Sweden v Denmark
The Scandinavian `derby` sees the nation with the third best finals record, semi-finalists in 1992, play the only former winners among the play-off contenders. Who can forget back in 1992 when the Danish players got the call to drag them from their summer holidays because Yugoslavia were expelled from the Championships……in Sweden before astounding the football world by winning the trophy.
This tie also throws together two of the biggest names in world football – in their opinion- Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Nicklas Bendtner. Indeed Zlatan has come out with a classic quote that a European Championships without him would be, “UNIMAGINABLE”. About as unimaginable as Sweden scrapping through to the play offs by the skin of their teeth. But, as per usual with Sweden, their reliance on their 34 year old skipper does not diminish as proven by his eight goals, from Sweden`s qualifying total of 15. A total that was the equal of the entire Danish team in qualifying and two of that total came from Arsenal reject Bendtner.
Despite what Niklas may feel the main man for Denmark is Christian Eriksen, a threat from set pieces as well as open play. Sweden probably have the edge in players with ability but there will be tremendous motivation on the part of the Danes that they send their legendary coach Morten Olsen into retirement, he has vowed to step down after 15 years in charge, with a farewell performance at Euro 2016.
Ukraine v Slovenia
Ukraine can justifiably consider themselves the most unfortunate of all play-off contenders. They lost just one of their qualifying games and only conceded four goals and finished third in their group with more points than Turkey who qualified as best third placed team. Unfortunately results against bottom teams do not count in the head to head procedure that sent Turkey through to France instead.
The main problem Ukraine had in their qualifying group is the same problem they will encounter against Slovenia and, should they get through, in France- a lack of goal power when it really matters. In the group games they failed to register a single goal against the top two teams Spain and Slovakia but to be fair although the record books will show a 1-0 Spain win the records will not show an incredible 28 shots on target by Ukraine.
Slovenia`s achievement in international tournaments is nothing short of miraculous. For a country of just 2 million the national team is attempting to qualify for a fourth major tournament in the last 16 years. Top scorer Milivoje Novakovic is the main man and one that Ukraine will be wary of as he netted six of the team`s 18 qualifying group goals. Conversely Ukraine`s leading scorer in qualifying games was Andriy Yarmolenko with just four of his country`s 14 goals. Ukraine will rely heavily on Yarmolenko and his fellow star striker Yeuhen Konoplyanka.
Slovenia have gone back to the future by restoring Srecko Katanec as coach. He was successful in taking Slovenia to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup. But despite his track record Slovenia still finished with the lowest points total of all third placed sides in the qualifying competition.
Norway v Hungary
Hungary is one of THE names in world football thanks to the Mighty Magyars but that was 60 years ago and it is 29 years since Hungary last reached a major international tournament finals, the Mexico World Cup 1986. However they go into the play offs with the best Euro record of all the play off contenders, as losers of the Third place, 2-1 to hosts Belgium back in 1972.
Unfortunately Hungary`s top scorer in qualifying games was Kristian Nemeth with two goals. Starring for Sporting Kansas City in the MLS is hardly going to have the Norway back line quaking in their boots. Having said that Norway rely heavily on leading scorer,Norwich City midfielder Alexander Tettey who netted three of his country`s 13 qualification group goals. And he is just one goal behind the top scorer of the current crop of players, Bournemouth`s Josh King.
It isn`t easy to make a call on who will get through this play off but the edge has to be with Norway. They have an energetic, young squad and showed just what they are made of by beating Croatia and only losing their final qualifier narrowly to Italy. The winning goal, in a 2-1 defeat, was scored by Southampton`s Pelle in the 82nd minute when it looked like Norway would hold on for the draw.
For France 2016
– Written by Brian Beard