With Germany cruising in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying Group C, the section's other sides look to be gearing up for a race for a spot in the play-offs. It is a race Sean St Ledger thinks Republic of Ireland can win.
Trailing eight points behind the leaders, the Irish sit level with Austria and Sweden, with the Scandinavians having played a game less. As their two rivals square off in this latest round of games, the St Ledger and the Republic have a great chance to steal a march in the pursuit of second spot.
Having earned a battling 1-1 draw at Wembley against England and a convincing 4-0 win over Georgia in the build-up to the match in Dublin against Faroe Islands, the hosts will be in confident mood. The game against the Three Lions was St Ledger's first start for his country in nine months after an injury-plagued season and was an experience he feels has sharpened up Giovanni Trapattoni's side, so they can take full advantage of this latest qualifier.
“It’s an experience to play at Wembley, in a local derby kind of game. I think it’s been a really, really good warm-up match,” the Leicester City defender told FIFA.com. "England are a very good side who obviously have players in top Premier League sides. From my own personal point-of-view it was good to get 90 minutes, as I haven’t played an international game for a long, long time now and it’s the first time I’ve played at centre-half since I’ve been back fit.
“Obviously the most important thing for us is the Faroes game and we know we have to try to get three points and try, if we can, to increase our goal difference.”
The latter point could well be an important one come 15 October, when the group is finalised. Austria currently boast a superior goal difference in comparison to both their competitors, with Ireland suffering the repercussions of a weighty 6-1 reverse to Germany. While Sweden were fortunate to scrape past the Faroes, Austria put six past them without reply in March, increasing the need for a good performance from Trapattoni's side.
Following that, the Republic's next two games will likely be pivotal in their quest for a Brazil 2014 play-off spot, hosting Sweden on 6 September with a visit to Austria four days later. When Erik Hamren's side travel to Ireland, the similarities between the sides, in St Ledger's opinion, make the game very winnable. “I think Sweden are very much like us, they’re very organised, they have [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic who can do a little bit, but we feel confident that at home we can beat them, so second place is there for the taking.”
Having drawn with both the Swedes and Austria this year already, the latter requiring a stoppage-time David Alaba goal in 2-2 draw at the Aviva Stadium, St Ledger is confident of their chances, particularly on the road. “Austria are a very good side but I don’t think, under this management, we’ve lost a qualifying game away from home, so fingers crossed we can keep that up,” he said.
It is an impressive record they hold on the road in qualification matches, with their last away defeat coming against Czech Republic back in 2007. You have to go back a great deal further - 12 years - to find the last time the Republic lost abroad in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, when Iran beat them 1-0 in the second leg of the Intercontinental play-off ahead of Korea/Japan 2002. Even then, they won 2-1 on aggregate.
However, with a trip to Germany set for their final game, maintaining that record will be a tough task against a side ranked 37 places above them and second in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. A result there would increase considerably their chances of travelling to Brazil, but first they have to worry about the Faroes.