Every Friday, Caolán Conroy provides his take on three different sporting developments across the UK and Ireland, and shares his predictions for match-ups ahead. This week he looks at the World Cup qualifiers, rugby’s European Champions Cup and Ulster GAA.
World Cup qualifiers: Play-off Lottery
There were mixed results for Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland in this week’s World Cup qualifiers. Northern Ireland suffered two defeats, first against world champions Germany then Norway when the players already knew they were guaranteed a play-off place. The Republic did it the hard way, confirming their own play-off place after recording wins at home to Moldova and away to Wales.
Both teams will be confident of reaching next summer’s tournament in Russia. Both will be unseeded for the play-off draw. Let’s take a look at their potential opponents.
FIFA Ranking: 7th.
Qualifying Group: Runners up to Portugal with 27 points
Strength: Defence – Kept six clean sheets throughout the qualifying campaign.
Weakness – Apart from facing Portugal, this was one of the weakest group’s in European qualifying. The Swiss only narrowly defeated Hungary, Andorra, Faroe Islands and Latvia in the final group games.
Key Man: Xherdan Shaqiri.
FIFA Ranking: 17th.
Qualifying Group: Runners-up to Spain with 23 points.
Strength: Defence – Italy can call upon key trio of Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli. All three are ageing but are world class and a match for any attack.
Weakness: Attack – Finished the campaign with three goals in four games. This included a 1-1 draw at home to Macedonia. Their attack does contain quality in the likes of Insigne, Immobile, Belotti and Gabbiadini, but in qualifying games – excluding games against Leichtenstein – the Italians only scored 12 goals in eight games. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has also started to make uncharacteristic mistakes. Is his age starting to catch up with him?
Key Man: Marco Verratti.
FIFA Ranking: 18th.
Qualifying Group: Runners up to Iceland with 23 points.
Strength: Midfield – Containing Modric, Rakitic and Perisic, surely this is one of the strongest around. Northern Ireland and the Republic would struggle with the quality, movement and creativeness that they possess.
Weakness: Management – Croatia sacked their manager just 24 hours before they played and won their final qualifying game against Ukraine on Monday. Outgoing boss Ante Cacic was said to be unpopular with players and fans. What impact might a new manager have on their performance?
Key Man: Luka Modric.
FIFA Ranking: 26th.
Qualifying Group: Runners-up to Poland with 20 points.
Strength: Mental strength – Despite winning only two of their first five qualifying games, Denmark went on to win four in a row, including impressively beating group winners Poland 4-0.
Weakness: Nicklas Bendtner – back in the squad after being left out at the start of the campaign.
Key Man: Christian Eriksen.
European Champions Cup
Rugby’s European Champions Cup kicks off this weekend, with three Irish provinces set to join the action. Ulster begin their campaign against Wasps in Belfast on Friday night. Iain Henderson will captain Ulster for the first time in the absence of Rory Best. Ulster are missing other important players through injury including Marcell Coetzee, Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne and Schalk van der Merwe, but their worries don’t compare to the injury crisis Wasps are currently suffering – who have lost four games in a row.
Wasps’ management team are also upset by the five-day turnaround between their last game against Saracens on Sunday and tonight’s game in Belfast.
Ulster also face French side La Rochelle and Harlequins in Pool 1. They’re currently third favourites to top the group and seal automatic qualification. At 3/1 I’d say they’re a good bet to upset the odds and qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time in four seasons.
GAA Ulster club championship
The Ulster Club football championship begins this weekend with the preliminary round meeting of last year’s two finalists; Slaughtneil and Kilcoo in Newry.
Derry champions Slaughtneil are favourites to win Ulster for the third time in four years and will be boosted by the news that Kilcoo are missing one of their danger men, the injured Ryan Johnson.
The Ulster club championship in my opinion is the most competitive, compelling and most entertaining competitions in the GAA calendar. Despite the sometimes awful weather conditions, it produces high quality games that supporters can really enjoy. Teams often abandon defensive strategies that have become the norm in football and produce attacking displays. Most teams play with traditional 15 on 15, with the superior footballing team usually coming out on top. Attendances over the last few years have been impressive, leading to some fantastic atmospheres.
Living in London, one of the big things I miss is having the chance to attend these games. Over the last couple of years the county game has become dominated by the bigger counties; the Ulster Club Championship was the place to see good football, fine scores and hard hits.
This weekend also sees five county football finals across Ulster; titles will be decided in Antrim, Armagh, Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone. I provide my predictions for these and the Ulster Club game below.
Ulster Club SFC Round 1: Kilcoo (Down) v Slaughtneil (Derry). Slauhtneil have so much big game experience; I think they’ll win by 4 points.
Antrim SFC final: Lamh Dhearg v St John’s. Draw.
Armagh SFC final: Armagh Harps v Maghery. Maghery to win by 3 points.
Donegal SFC final: Kilcar v Naomh Conaill. Kilcar to win by 2 points.
Monaghan SFC final: Magheracloone v Scotstown – Scotstown to win by 7 points.
Tyrone SFC final: Omagh v Errigal Ciaran. Omagh to win by 4.
European Champions Cup Pool 1
Ulster v Wasps. Ulster to win by 7 points.
European Champions Cup Pool 3
Leinster v Montpellier. Leinster to win by 10 points.
European Champions Cup Pool 4
Castres v Munster. Munster to win by a small margin.