As the Republic gear up for next Wednesday’s massive encounter with a French squad strengthened by the return of midfield maestro Zinedane Zidane and compatriots Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram, their reign atop Group 4 is set to come to an end on Saturday night.
The most likely scenario is that Ireland will go into the French match at Lansdowne Road third on the standings and needing a win just to stay in contention for the playoff berth that will go to the group’s runners-up.
Saturday’s group fixtures pit Switzerland against Israel in Basel and France at home to the “whipping boys” from the Faroe Islands in Lens.
Unfortunately for Brian Kerr, this is when his side pays for allowing Israel’s Avi Yemiel and Avi Nimni to cancel out strikes by Ian Harte and Robbie Keane in the visitors’ surprise 2-2 draw in Dublin last June.
Switzerland (3-0-3, 12), who kick-off a point behind Ireland (3-0-4, 13), will move ahead of Kerr’s men with a win or draw, in the latter case because they have a superior goal difference. If third-place Israel (2-0-5, 11) upset the Swiss, then they will top the group regardless of the outcome in Lens.
Les Bleus, 3-0 victors over a decent Ivory Coast side in a tune-up two weeks ago, could also move past Ireland if they score four goals or more against their North Atlantic opponents.
However, they’ll only shoot into first place if Switzerland and the plucky Israelis, who came away from both Paris and Dublin with points, tie and they rout the Faroe Islands 6-0 — which is not beyond the French, with Zidane creating for Thierry Henry and Djbril Cisse.
At any rate, it won’t all be doom and gloom for the Republic even if they can’t beat France next week. That’s unless Israel win in Switzerland.
After avoiding defeat both at home and away against France and Ireland, the Swiss represent Israel’s last major hurdle, with two relatively easy qualifiers against the Faroe Islands beckoning in Torshavn next Wednesday and on Oct. 8.
If the Israelis triumph in Basel, Ireland will have to win all their three remaining games, starting Wednesday, just to be assured of beating out the Middle Eastern state for either second or first place.
Also in Group 4 next Wednesday, Cyprus host Switzerland in Nicosia.
Saturday (home teams listed first): Group 1 — Armenia-Holland, Romania-Czech Republic, Andorra-Finland; Gp 2 — Turkey-Denmark, Georgia-Ukraine, Albania-Kazakhstan; Gp 3 — Portugal-Luxembourg, Russia- Liechtenstein, Estonia-Latvia.
Group 5 – Slovenia-Norway, Moldova-Belarus, Scotland-Italy; Gp 6 – Poland-Austria, Northern Ireland – Azerbaijan, Wales-England; Gp 7–
Serbia & Montenegro-Lithuania, Bosnia-Belgium, Gp 8 – Hungary-Malta, Iceland-Croatia, and Sweden-Bulgaria.
Next Wednesday: Gp 1-Holland-Andorra, Finland-Macedonia, Czech Republic-Armenia; Gp 2 — Denmark-Georgia, Ukraine-Turkey, Kazakhstan-Greece; Gp 3 — Liechtenstein-Luxembourg, Latvia-Slovakia, Russia-Portugal; Gp 5– Moldova-Slovenia, Belarus-Italy, Norway-Scotland.
Group 6 — Azerbaijan-Austria, Poland-Wales, Northern Ireland- England; Gp 7 — Spain-Serbia & Montenegro, Belgium-San Marino, Lithuania-Bosnia; Gp 8 — Hungary-Sweden, Bulgaria-Iceland, and Malta – Croatia.