Anticipation for Ireland's Euros opener tempered with no little trepidation

Well, yes, and here we go again. This might be a different Ireland, with a different manager and a number of different faces as first choice players but, as the first day of our Euro 2016 finally dawns, it’s hard to ignore the superficial similarities with four years ago in Poland.

As then, Ireland face the team deemed to be our most manageable opponents in the first game, the group favourites in the second and then our old friends Italy in the final match.

But it would be a mistake to read a whole lot more into the symmetry than that.

Taken individually, each of these games is nothing like as daunting as those Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland faced in 2012. Croatia then were better than Sweden now, the Italians are demonstrably weaker than their former selves and, as for highly-touted Belgium, even if they finally click into something approaching a tournament-shaking groove here in France, they will still have so much more to do to warrant favourable comparison with the Spanish team which - when Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and the rest had the misfortune to come up against them in Gdansk - were already well on the way to footballing immortality as back to back Euros, World and Euros champions.

And yet, this being Ireland, anticipation will always be tempered with trepidation, a sort of borderline personality condition that’s long been second nature to the Irish football fan and which was only confirmed in this European Championship qualifying campaign by the team’s baffling ability to lose to Scotland one day and beat Germany on another.

As much as it’s widely accepted that the outcome of tonight’s match at the Stade de France will revolve to a large extent around whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in imperious or disinterested mood – and yesterday the self-styled “legend who dominates” was certainly talking up a storm - it’s also the case that proceedings could be dictated to a significant degree by which Ireland turns up.

You think of the nerviness and lack of authority which undermined the performances home and away to the Poles and the Scots, and you can’t help but worry that this evening’s biggest of occasions might get to the players, especially all those for whom this will be their first experience of the thin air at one of football’s highest peaks.

On the other hand, there’s the more recent and encouraging evidence of the play-off against Bosnia which saw the team overcome its biggest hurdle to date with two admirably controlled and mature performances.

More of that tonight, please, and Ireland can at least draw and even be confident of winning this game, especially if Martin O’Neill includes Wes Hoolahan, the Irish player best equipped to not only keep possession of the ball but make the most creative use of it.

A commanding performance from James McCarthy would also help, as would top-notch delivery from Robbie Brady and Seamus Coleman playing at something close to his livewire best.

John O’Shea and Richard Keogh should get the nod at centre-half but there’s an outside chance that, to combat the height of Ibrahimovic as well as offering Ireland an added goal threat at set-pieces, O’Neill could spring a surprise by handing the impressive Shane Duffy what would be his competitive debut for Ireland at these European Championships.

While the defence will need to keep concentration levels at a maximum to thwart not only Ibra but also striker Marcus Berg and playmaking wide man Emil Forsberg, at the other end of the pitch Ireland can now boast the increasingly potent goal threat of Shane Long, a striker in the form of his life who could, conceivably, take not just the match but the group by storm.

And the news that, barring an 11th hour breakdown, Jon Walters is on course for a return to the fray is a major boost to Irish ambitions of getting off to the right start.

Of course, exactly what Martin O’Neill has up his sleeve in terms of personnel and tactics will only become clear about an hour before kick off in Paris tonight.

He did, however, shed a modicum of light in his pre-match press conference on what he thinks would constitute a good result.

“I don’t think it’s a must win,” he said. “It’s very, very important, of course, and it would great to get off to a great start. I’m sure Sweden are targeting us in the sense that they’d feel if they could get a win it gives them a great chance. We must feel exactly the same way. The way the competition has evolved this particular year, I think that by the third game, you’re still in it fighting for something I should imagine.”

The manager also had little option but to concede that he might just have erred a bit when he once described the boy Ibra as “the most overrated player on the planet”. Needless to say, he has since amended his opinion.

“I remember for a period of time I felt that Henrik Larsson was overrated too,” said a chastened O’Neill. “After about three and a half minutes, I changed my mind. He (Ibrahimovic) is a top class player, one of the best in Europe, if not the world. He’s Sweden’s talisman and he will be hard to keep quiet.”

Football wasn’t the only item on the agenda yesterday, with O’Neill expressing shock at the hooliganism which has blighted the opening days of Euro 2016.

“Sometimes I wonder,” he reflected. “People were talking about maybe the segregation wasn’t strong enough (at England v Russia in Marseilles) but when people are setting out to cause trouble, I think they’ll cause it regardless. From the pictures we saw it was pretty disconcerting.”

A much happier image from was that of Dimitri Payet shedding tears of joy as he left the pitch after scoring that spectacular winner for France against Romania in the tournament’s opening game in the venue which will host Ireland and Sweden tonight.

“Football is an emotional game,” said the manager. “I’m not surprised Payet showed some emotion. If we score a few goals I’ll probably be joining him. Outside of the World Cup, this is the second biggest tournament going. We deserve to be here, so let’s try to do something about it.”

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