Liam Brady is concerned that UEFA have diluted the quality of France 2016 but hopeful that Ireland can progress in the tournament – just so long as they begin the finals the way they ended their qualifying campaign
WITH Euro 2016 almost upon us, my mood ahead of kick-off might best be described as a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.
I’m delighted, of course, that Ireland will be involved and cautiously optimistic they can progress from their group. But I’m also concerned that, as a spectacle of football, the tournament could suffer from the decision to inflate the format to 24 teams, since there is a danger — especially in the group stages, with four of the third-place teams set to qualify — that it will encourage drab, defensive football, where avoiding defeat will trump will to win.
Not to put too fine a point on it – and I hope I’m wrong – but I’m afraid France 2016 will end up being remembered for what happens on the fields of play as a boring European Championship finals.
But before a ball is kicked we are all still entitled to hope for the best, particularly where the fortunes of Martin O’Neill’s team are concerned. That there were no real surprises in the manager’s final squad was probably only to be expected but, in a larger sense, it’s a disappointment in what it says about Irish football’s dearth of top-class talent.
Sometimes, in the run-up to a tournament, a player can appear on the scene that a manager wouldn’t have previously earmarked for his Finals squad but I think everyone knew there was no one either on the horizon or under the radar who was suddenly going to emerge as a serious contender for us.
The obvious contrast is supplied by England, with the performances of Dele Alli for Spurs and, at a much later stage in the season, Marcus Rashford for Manchester United, forcing those players into Roy Hodgson’s thoughts and then into his squad. Hector Bellerin, another top young player, did likewise with Spain after his excellent season at Arsenal.
But that type of thing was never going to happen to us – and more’s the pity. That said, I do think the loss of Harry Arter to injury was unfortunate because I would have considered him someone who could have gone to the Euros with a real chance of contributing – he’s busy, he has a very good left foot and he’s an excellent passer of the ball.
I know there was a lot of talk about David McGoldrick as someone who might bring something different to the cause but, in the final couple of friendlies when he had his chance, he didn’t do anything to make you think he’s better than what we’ve already got. I’ve been watching a lot of Championship football this season because of the many Arsenal players who are out on loan in that division, and the truth is I didn’t see any Irish player who made me think: ‘He’s going to be first team, first choice when we go to France’.
As it is, Martin has quite a lot of players in his squad who’ll be doing well to see any game time in France. Most of the team, fitness permitting of course, already picks itself: Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh, Brady or Ward, Whelan, McCarthy, McClean or Hendrick, Walters, Long – and I think the extent of Wes Hoolahan’s involvement will come down to how Martin sees the opposition.
Speaking of which, I think we’ve been given some luck in the draw by getting to play Sweden first. Of course, it goes without saying that we’ll have to be wary of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. I watched their play-off against Denmark and, if it wasn’t for him, an otherwise ordinary Swedish side wouldn’t even be in France. But while Ibrahimovic is good enough on his day to beat teams on his own, he’s also a moody sort who is prone to having off days – like he did for PSG against Man City in the Champions League. And we’ll just have to hope that’s the case and that we can keep him quiet in the Stade de France on June 13.
Because the reality is that if we don’t get something out of that match, we’re really going to be behind the black ball. Confidence will be fragile and that will only make the challenge of facing Belgium all the more daunting.
For all that they’ve flattered to deceive up to now, if Marc Wilmots can come up with the right selection and the right blend for his team, the talent to actually win the Euros is in that Belgian side. But even if we were to lose that middle game, a result in the first match against Sweden would still stand to us for the final group fixture against Italy who, having themselves played Belgium at that point, might also be a bit shaky.
Certainly, going into the tournament without midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio is a real blow for them, while the fact that Graziano Pelle is their favoured striker should be enough to tell you that this is not a vintage attacking Italian side.
So much then depends on Ireland getting off to a good start. And to achieve that, we will simply have to play to our full capacity. Some teams can kind of coast their way to qualifying from the group and then come good – we’re not one of those teams.
But I do think we can beat Sweden if Martin can inspire the players to tap into the spirit they showed in the win over Germany and also remind them of how good they were in the play-off games against Bosnia.
I can’t stress this enough: a victory in the first game is the key to it all for Ireland.
Of the three other countries heading to France from these islands, it’s safe to conclude that England have the best chance of going furthest in the competition, even though I suspect they’ll find scoring goals easier than keeping them out. Wales will be hugely dependent on Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey performing at their best to have a chance of progressing and Northern Ireland, a bit like ourselves, have it all to do to get out of their group.
As to who will win the Euros, Spain would be the favourites for me, ahead of hosts France and, if they click, our group opponents Belgium. A lot of people are writing off the Spanish because of their early exit from the World Cup in Brazil two years ago but, unlike Germany who actually won the competition, Spain have done more to refresh their side with quality players.
As I said at the start, I’m worried that UEFA have diluted the quality of France 2016 with their ill-advised expansion of the tournament so, on that count, I find it hard to get too excited by the prospect of the month ahead.
But, of course, Ireland being involved makes all the difference. What I’d be saying to our fans is: go to enjoy it but don’t expect too much. And what I’d say to our players is: go and see if you come back as a team of heroes.
Because, for Ireland, getting out of that group will be like winning a cup final.
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