Irish football fans are well used to qualification play-offs. Ireland have had to win play-offs to qualify for each of the last two European Championships, and so it will be again if Mick McCarthy’s side are to be present at Euro 2020, a tournament that will see group games played in Dublin for the first time.
Ireland face a tricky first play-off away against Slovakia, before the prospect of a final match against either Northern Ireland or Bosnia and Herzegovina. While McCarthy and co. may fancy their chances in that pathway, a worrying lack of goals throughout the qualification process will have supporters biting their nails. If you consult the bookies, you’ll soon discover the Euro 2020 qualifiers odds place Slovakia as favourites to go through – and Ireland’s lack of offensive firepower is undoubtedly a part of this.
In finishing third in Group D, Ireland scored a measly seven goals in eight matches, a figure in stark contrast to the 23 scored by second-placed Denmark, and the 19 scored by group winners Switzerland. It’s a problem that has affected Ireland for a while, especially since the retirement of legendary striker Robbie Keane. Both Martin O’Neill and now McCarthy have struggled to find a forward who can be relied upon to consistently deliver the goods.
David McGoldrick, with whom McCarthy worked at Ipswich, was usually the man called upon to lead the line, but he has only registered one international goal, and has failed to score in the Premier League for Sheffield United this season – hardly the scoring form you want from your number nine, even with McGoldrick’s ability to hold up the ball.
Luton Town’s James Collins also failed to make a meaningful impact in the games he played in qualifying, appearing a shadow of the striker who helped fire Luton to Championship promotion last season.
Callum Robinson has also struggled to find his feet at international level, although for West Brom he has stretched the game from the left of the attack, while the manager does not appear to favour Shane Long.
The recent goal-scoring exploits of Birmingham City’s Scott Hogan and Lukas Jutkiewicz will have caused McCarthy to sit up and take notice. Hogan has been in and around the Ireland squad for a few years without making a significant impression, but has found form in the Championship of late, having bagged three goals in his last four games for the Blues – he is a proficient close-range finisher.
Jutkiewicz, although born in England and of Polish descent, had an Irish grandmother which would enable him to play for the national side.
He is now 30, but is an experienced Championship goalscorer with a good attitude whilst possessing the aerial prowess required to be an effective reference point in a direct system and has been in good form recently at club level.
Whatever McCarthy opts for up top, he needs his side to find some attacking chemistry, which Ireland have recently lacked.
The football has been stodgy, uninspiring and short of ideas ideas under McCarthy, and while defensive solidity is good, regular qualification for major tournaments requires greater offensive firepower.
There are promising young attackers coming through the ranks: Southampton’s Michael Obafemi has shown encouraging signs that he could be one for the future, not least in scoring against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in December.
Similarly, Tottenham Hotspur’s Troy Parrott is another one to watch out for, and he is highly regarded as somebody with a wide range of qualities as well as an aggressive mentality.
Ireland need to find a spark from somewhere if they’re to reach Euro 2020. What is less clear is whether McCarthy can make that happen.