A precious away goal in Zenica means the Republic of Ireland have the slightest of advantages heading back to Dublin for the second leg of their Euro 2016 playoff against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday. A tight first leg last Friday, played behind an ever-increasing haze of fog, came to life in the final 10 minutes, with first Robbie Brady scoring to seemingly send Ireland on their way to a priceless win on the road, only for Edin Dzeko to claw the home side level just three minutes later. The away goal still leaves Ireland with the edge, but it is not one Ireland coach Martin O’Neil says his side can rely upon.
“Obviously, it would be terrific if we could do it, but I have to be very, very mindful of the fact that we are a long way away from doing that," he said, according to Sky Sports. “We have to put things into perspective: Bosnia are capable of scoring, they could wipe that advantage, that away goal that we have within minutes of the game, and then suddenly they are on the front foot.
“If we think that we can keep them out for 90 minutes and camp ourselves just outside our own penalty area, that would be a recipe for disaster. We have to consider being really on the front foot, genuinely, and going and trying to win this game, and that's it.”
Ireland could be boosted in their hopes of reaching the European Championship for just the third time by the return of a trio of influential players. Jonathan Walters is definitely available again after returning from suspension. John O’Shea has also served his suspension, although is still battling a hamstring injury. Also battling for fitness is Southampton forward Shane Long, who scored Ireland’s winning goal against Germany last month.
Bosnia are attempting to make it to their maiden European Championship, having qualified for their first major tournament at the 2014 World Cup. It has already taken quite a recovery simply to get to this point, having taken just two points from their first four qualifiers. But after the appointment of Mehmed Baždarević as coach, Bosnia won five of their final six matches in their group, to finish behind Belgium and Wales.
Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, now at Chelsea but who up until this season was teammates with Ireland duo Walters and Glenn Whelan at Stoke City, hopes that a more positive approach from the Irish could play in Bosnia’s favor.
“We will try to improve,” he said, reports the Irish Times. “It’s about trying to execute our plan as much as possible and as well as possible, and then we’ll see where it takes us in the end. Hopefully we’ll come out the other side but being at home, Ireland will probably expect a little more. We’ll try to use that to our advantage.”
Bosnia have a concern over the fitness of key striker Dzeko, although the Roma man is expected to shake off a groin strain. Right-back Mensur Mujdza is another doubt, but Everton midfielder Muhamed Besic is available again after completing a three-match suspension.
Prediction: This is likely to be another extremely tightly fought contest with goals not in large supply. In Ireland’s last five home matches, there have been just six goals combined. The potential return of O’Shea, Walters and Long could be vital for Ireland, particularly if they are able to count upon the pace of Long up front in order to hit Bosnia on the break. Despite O’Neil citing the dangers of simply sitting back, the fact that the obligation to attack rests with Bosnia will suit Ireland. And that should ultimately help them prevail, although likely not without plenty of nervy moments along the way.
Predicted score: Ireland 1-0 Bosnia
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1