Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 dreams on hold, Republic keep hopes alive
Jeff Hendrick’s moment of brilliance gifted Jonathan Walters with the decisive strike which helped the Republic of Ireland topple Georgia 1-0 and keep their Euro 2016 qualification hopes alive, while Northern Ireland put their dreams on ice after a 1-1 draw with Norway.
Stoke City forward Walters struck from close range after Hendrick produced a superb charging run into the Georgian penalty area from the left flank, while Kyle Lafferty netted late on to leave Michael O’Neill’s men only two points away from a place in France and are 7/4 with Coral top Group F.
It looked like it was heading for a miserable night in Dublin for the Irish fans, after a miserable first-half display which suggested Martin O’Neill’s men had no business among Europe’s elite next summer, but Walters managed to grab a vital winner to inject life into their ambitions.
The Republic now sit pretty in third place of a tight Group D, with world champions Germany having overcome a defiant Scotland 3-2 in Glasgow, seeing the Irish move four points clear of Gordon Strachan’s men in a play-off position.
After back-to-back wins over Gibraltar and Georgia, next up for the Irish is Germany in Dublin, then they finish their campaign with a tough trip to Poland, but recent results have fuelled their belief and expectations once again.
There is still much work to be done in order to claim the group’s play-off spot, but positive outcomes in those final two qualifying fixtures could even elevate Ireland to an automatic position, but O’Neill isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves,” he stated. “We’ve opened up a bit of the gap but the head-to-head [against Scotland] could still come into play.
“It’s still in our own hands but we have two incredibly difficult games coming up. We’re against the world champions next – we might as well have a go – and we have to find a win from at least one of the matches. We will naturally have to do better for 90 minutes.”
Drastically different halves during the majority of their clashes in qualifying have been a frequent problem for Ireland, something which will need to be addressed in order to stand a chance of earning points over Germany, who are 3/1 to triumph next summer.
Meanwhile, out-of-favour Norwich City frontman Lafferty continued his rampant international run to send Northern Ireland within touching distance of a place in France next year. The in-form forward fired in his seventh strike in eight qualifying outings to equalise against Norway and leave them two points from reaching their maiden European Championship.
A victory over Group F’s bottom side Greece, a win in Finland or a draw in both encounters would see O’Neill’s side reach their first major tournament since 1986 and their boss is feeling hopeful as they sit on the cusp of history.
“The onus is on Hungary to win their last two games,” stated O’Neill.
“It puts you through the mill. We’re in a great position,” said O’Neill. “If you offered us a four-point gap over third place with two games to go, of course we’d have taken that.”
October’s remaining fixtures can’t come quick enough for one of qualifying’s surprise packages and Northern Ireland, while the Republic will need a huge rise in performance levels to get the job done in Group D and are 100/1 to top their standings.