Questions have been asked about the character of this team before but now they’re really under huge pressure to perform. And it could go either way — that kind of burden can be too much for certain players or it can be the making of them.
Coming into the tournament, Marc Wilmots and his squad would have targeted getting something out of the Italy match, thinking they would then be able to handle ourselves and Sweden without too much bother. I know they say in football you take each game as it comes but, when they looked at this group beforehand, I’d be surprised if they didn’t think they’d get at least a draw in their opening game after which they would really have fancied their chances in the next two matches.
But Italy showed that with determination and good organisation you can stifle Belgium — I can only remember one outstanding chance for the Belgians, when Romelu Lukaku was through but, with Gigi Buffon coming out of his goal, he put it over the bar. I think Italy’s win over Sweden yesterday is a great result for us. I’m certain Conte will rest players for the third match now they’ve qualified.
But first things first. To make the most of the tension that Belgium are bound to be feeling, we’ve got to put it up to them by not affording them any room whatsoever this afternoon. Despite failing to live up to the hype so far, the Belgians probably have more players in their side who can go past people than any other team in the tournament — the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne and Atletico Madrid’s Carrasco if he plays. They all have that capability of taking players out of the game with mazy runs and dribbles, so we’ve got to make sure they don’t get the room to run at us.
That’s going to be a tough ask for our lads but they are entitled to face into the challenge with confidence after the performance against Sweden. Yes, there’s still plenty to be fearful of in the opposition ranks today but getting that result in the Stade de France — and it was so vital that we didn’t get beaten in the opening game — can provide the Irish players with the platform on which to confront a very talented Belgian team in the best possible way. All that said, not losing against Belgium would be an even better result than the draw we got against Sweden because today Ireland will be up against a vastly superior technical side than the one they encountered in Paris.
But where Belgium may be found wanting, in comparison with the Swedes, is in terms of their suspect temperament. There’s been a lot of talk about supposed frailties in their team spirit and team ethic, though whether that will actually affect them as a unit on the field of play today remains to be seen. It’s important Ireland set our stall out by making a good start to the game and not doing anything to give them encouragement or any kind of confidence booster, especially in that vital first 20 minutes or so.
I’m told this will be a red-letter day for Glenn Whelan who, by picking up his 73rd cap, will surpass my own total as Ireland’s most capped midfielder.
I want to say congratulations and good luck to him because he’s been a great pro down the years and he really showed his value to this Irish team with the 90 minutes he put in against the Swedes.
Yes, I have sometimes been critical of Glenn on the grounds I feel he needs to do more on the ball for us. In my opinion, he should be far more positive in terms of passing the ball forward rather than those sideways and backwards passes he tends to favour far too much for my liking.
But he has chipped in with important goals for Ireland. I remember, from my time working with Giovanni Trapattoni, his goals against Italy and Georgia that very nearly got us to the World Cup in South Africa. Like Trap, Martin O’Neill has huge faith in Glenn. And not only has he been a go-to guy for successive Irish managers, he has been something similar for, first, Tony Pulis and then Mark Hughes, at Stoke.
And it is to Whelan’s experience in the midfield that we will be really looking this afternoon to give us a proper fighting chance against Belgium.
It will be up to him to keep the guys around him in the right positions and try to ensure the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne don’t get the freedom to express themselves in the middle of the park. So well done to Glenn on claiming that record haul of caps and I wish him good luck today and in the rest of the tournament.
Meanwhile, for today’s game we’re going to be without the player whose name is probably the first Martin O’Neill sticks on the team sheet — Jon Walters.
There’s no getting away from the fact this is a significant blow to Ireland, and the manager has a big call to make in terms of getting his selection right in Walters’ unfortunate absence.
I think he’ll probably go for James McClean, although Stephen Quinn could also come into O’Neill’s mind, especially if he’s thinking that an extra body in the middle might be of more value against the Belgians than a more orthodox wide man.
And another poser for the manager, I think, is whether he should retain Ciaran Clark in the centre of defence. A couple of times against Sweden the defender was a little bit ragged with his clearances, and there may a case for bringing Richard Keogh back in to partner John O’Shea or possibly even throwing young Shane Duffy in at the deep end.
Despite the fact that, overall, he got a very good performance and a decent result from the players against Sweden, I think there could be question marks in Martin’s mind about that central defensive pairing.
But other than that, and McClean, or possibly Stephen Quinn, coming in for Walters, I think the rest of the team now picks itself.
Ireland will certainly be up against it today but, if you’re looking for additional grounds for optimism, don’t forget Jon Walters was missing the night we played Bosnia away in the first leg of the qualification play-off — and, with Robbie Brady scoring a superb away goal in a 1-1 draw, you’d have to say that we came through that test pretty well.
A similar result this afternoon will be harder to achieve but certainly no less welcome.