The luck of the Irish continues
It may prove difficult to switch a nation’s sporting focus from rugby to football, especially one that is basking in the glory of a first rugby grand slam in 61 years, but a wave of good fortune is boosting hopes of Ireland featuring at the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.
Guided by the mercurial talents of Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, the Irish have made a solid, undefeated start to a tricky qualifying group containing World champions Italy, Dimitar Berbatov’s Bulgaria, Cyprus – who beat them 5-2 in Euro 2008 qualifying - and a skilful Montenegro.
Optimism of a first appearance in a major finals since 2002 is growing but in earning their second place position, behind the Italians only on goal difference, a number of fortuitous moments have occurred.
Firstly they managed to avoid playing Georgia in their difficult Tbilisi home venue because of the war with Russia. They instead played in Mainz, Germany which seemed liked a home game for the Irish with the number of supporters they had to cheer a 2-1 victory.
Then Cypriot striker Efstathios Aloneftis, identified by Trapattoni as the dangerman ahead of their clash in Dublin in October, injured himself in the warm-up and missed the 1-0 defeat by the home side.
Then last month Finnish referee Jouni Hyytia awarded the Irish a very soft penalty when they were trailing Georgia 1-0 in Dublin with 17 minutes to go. Tottenham striker Robbie Keane dispatched the spotkick and bagged the winner shortly after to claim another victory.
And the luck shows no sign of stopping with Manchester United’s 30 million pound striker Berbatov ruled out of Bulgaria’s pivotal match in Dublin on Saturday because of an ankle injury. Italy also face a selection headache with a host of regulars missing for Trapattoni’s return to Bari on Wednesday.
Of course it has not been all about luck. Trap has the Irish playing some good football and a settled 4-4-2 formation allowing wingers Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady freedom to attack has also been key to their success.
But if the luck, which shouldn’t be discounted, continues and a place in the World Cup in South Africa is secured, Trapattoni’s popularity in the Emerald Isle could rival that of former boss Jack Charlton.
PHOTO: Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni reacts during their FIFA World Cup European Qualifying Group Eight match with Georgia at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin, Feb. 11, 2009. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne