Ireland play Poland in a friendly at the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday night in a game which has been set up to reunite the Irish and Polish communities. 30,000 Irish fans descended into Poland for two weeks last June and although it was a disastrous campaign on the pitch, off it, the Irish fans made a decent name for themselves.
There has been far more talk about the fans rather than the actual football in the week running up to the game. There have been numerous events organised by fan groups to promote the 'special bond' between the Irish and Polish fans. The head of the FAI John Delaney has been doing his best in acting as cheerleader for the game. He said: "We intend to convince Poles living in Ireland, in the future, that our national team has become their second team. We are thinking of creating a Polish section of the Irish Association of fans."
With all this talk of the fans coming together, it seems plenty of people have forgotten about the most important issue at hand here. This will be the last friendly Ireland will play before their two crucial qualifiers in March. Ireland's World Cup qualification hopes will be far clearer come the end of next month when they will have played both Sweden and Austria. Tomorrow night's game might be marketed as a chance for fans to come together and have a good time but on the pitch, there will be plenty of players staking their claim to start in the qualifiers next month.
The two sides last met back in 2008 when Poland beat Ireland 3-2 in a game played in front of 61,000 people at Croke Park. Although the attendance tomorrow night at the Aviva will be a long way short of that figure, the fans that will be there would happily take another goal fest but this time in the home side's favour. Three goals were scored in the last few minutes that night at Croke Park. Stephen Hunt first gave Ireland a lifeline after scoring as a substitute before Robert Lewandowski made it 3-1. Keith Andrews did manage to score a fine consolation goal which incidentally was a debut goal for the midfielder. There was plenty of jokes flying around after the game that there were in fact more Polish than Irish fans at the game that night. There is a real fear that this may be the case on Wednesday night with the FAI once again struggling to sell tickets for a home friendly.
World Cup Qualifying Hopes:
Ireland currently lie in third position, one point behind Sweden and two points ahead of Austria. Not even the staunchest Irish support would tell you that Ireland have any hopes of topping the group with Germany a clear cut above the rest of the group. Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni has himself admitted this, which makes next month's two games absolutely crucial. First up is a trip to Stockholm to face a Sweden side who enjoyed a famous victory over England last November in what was the opening game played in their new national stadium. Ireland will have to take at least a point from this one before facing Austria in Dublin which will be a game that they should be looking to take all three points from, if they harbour any real hopes of making it into the play offs.
Poland also sit in third place of their World Cup qualifying group but crucially have a game in hand on both England and Montenegro, who lead the group. Poland are undefeated in Group H having drawn with both Montenegro and England while picking up all three points against Moldova. Poland play two home qualifying games next month. Firstly against Ukraine while minnows San Marino also must travel to face the Poles. With England facing Montenegro in the same week, it will be a fantastic opportunity for Poland to pick up six points and make some ground on their nearest rivals.
Ones To Watch:
Hoolahan looks set to make his first ever start for his country on Wednesday night. The Norwich City playmaker looked lively in his brief cameo against Greece back in November. Robbie Keane is expected to sit this one out which should pave the way for Hoolahan to make his first start. Whether or not he will be given as much free reign as he is with his club looks doubtful. He may have to make do with a wider role in playing behind a front two of Long and Walters. If he is to get the nod from the start, it is a massive opportunity for the 30 year-old to make his mark on the international side and stake his claim for inclusion in the crunch qualifiers next month.
The Borussia Dortmund striker is one of the most sought after names in European football. Manchester United are said to be very keen on the 24 year-old with Alex Ferguson having been recently spotted watching him play in the Champions League against Manchester City. Last night there were widespread reports that Dortmund have agreed a deal for Lewandowski worth £18 million with Bayern Munich. If this is to be true, the Polish striker would become Pep Guardiola's first big name signing. Lewandowski was a key figure in Dortmund's first ever Bundesliga league and cup double in 2011 when he netted 30 goals for the season. He has again been in prolific form this campaign and has scored 19 goals in 19 games. He has the ability to cause any defence in the world plenty of problems, meaning Ireland will have their hands full tomorrow night in trying to stop the deadly Pole.
Most Irish fans will be hoping for a better game than the last friendly against Greece back in November. Poland have plenty of good footballers in their side that do like to get the ball on the ground early. They will be buoyed by the fact that there will be a large Polish crowd in attendance. With Richard Dunne and Seamus Coleman missing from the back four, the likes of O'Shea and Clark will have their hands full with Robert Lewandowski. Another area of concern would be on the right flank. Greg Cunningham looks likely to be given the nod at left full back meaning he will come up against Poland's skipper, Jakub Blaszczykowski. Blaszczykowski is another fantastic Borussia Dortmund talent and it may come down to both Dortmund men being the difference between the two sides.
Poland to sneak a narrow 2-1 victory.