Bluffer’s guide to Ireland’s prospects

What to say:

“I think Ireland can get at Belgium on the flanks because they play with two centre-backs at full-back: Spurs pair Jan Vertonghen (left-back) and Toby Alderweireld (right-back) have looked good in the middle but are different players out wide. And in today’s game, all the best teams have top full-backs: think of players like Philipp Lahm, Jordi Alba, Dani Alves. Jon Walters could exploit this weakness.”

“Let’s hope Sweden coach Erik Hamren continues to overlook so many of the players who were part of Sweden’s Under-21 European Championship winning side. In qualifying, he kept faith with slow centre-backs Mikael Antonsson and Andreas Granqvist and the even slower Kim Kallstrom in midfield. Let’s hope the risk-averse boss doesn’t change his plans and put faith in the likes of Isaac Kiese Thelin, Abdullah Khalili or flair players Erkan Zengin and Jimmy Durmaz.”

Don’t say:

“Ireland will be fine if they can just stop Eden Hazard.” Well, that’s actually the least of the issues as in qualifying, Kevin de Bruyne, and Marouane Fellaini, were far more decisive.”

Gigi Buffon has played over 150 games for Italy and will be 38 when he tournament kicks off next summer — surely he is past it?” Far from it: the Azzurri skipper is in the best form of his life and was one of Juventus’s key players in winning Serie A last season.”

“It’s all very well talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic but when has he ever done it in a major tournament?” Almost every time he’s played, actually: he has scored for Sweden at Euro 2004 (against Bulgaria and Italy), Euro 2008 (Greece and Spain) and Euro 2012 (Ukraine and France).”

Reasons to be cheerful

  • Ireland play Sweden first, a winnable match against a workmanlike side that is reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who in six months will be nearly 35. Keep him quiet and this is a game that can be won.
  • Sweden coach Erik Hamren was so under pressure during qualifying that there were calls to sack him even before the play-off win over Denmark.
  • The new format means that finishing third could be enough to reach the next round.
  • Italy coach Antonio Conte has not found a regular scorer for his side, with none of Simone Zaza, Graziano Pelle and Éder so far proving themselves. Conte also wants Andrea Pirlo back in Italy from MLS for the second half of the season.
  • Belgium have a talented squad but concerns remain about whether coach Marc Wilmots has the tactical sharpness to turn the side into winners.

The glass half-empty

  • Where do you start? Group E was the one to avoid because the winners face runners-up as opposed to third-placed teams, while the runners-up face other runners-up.
  • Belgium is the number-one ranked team in the world and can only pick one of three strikers that Ireland would love: Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, and Michy Batshuayi.
  • “Messi?” said Marc Wilmots at the last World Cup. “Well, I have Hazard and De Bruyne.”
  • Italy are a rugged tournament side, the strongest from Pot 2, whose defensive solidity is built on Conte’s favourites from his days as Juventus coach: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci in a three-man backline.
  • Then there is the Zlatan factor: when on his game, the PSG record-breaker can single-handedly haul his team over the line, as he did against Denmark with three goals, one a stunning free-kick, in their two play-off matches.

Grounds for excitement

Sweden in Saint-Denis:

A return to the Stade de France for Ireland’s opener, scene of the 2010 World Cup play-off controversy against France. France won the 1998 World Cup final here and it will host the Euro 2016 final. It also hosted the 2007 Rugby World Cup final and two Champions League finals, in 2000 and 2006.

Belgium in Bordeaux:

Bordeaux is a rugby region but the football club have provided France’s national side with more players for World Cup squads than any other club. The Stade de Bordeaux took under two years to build, at a cost of €180m, and was completed ahead of this season. Look out for the ‘floating’ roof supported by 900 stanchions, designed to resemble local Landes-pine posts.

Italy in Lille:

The Stade Pierre Mauroy opened in August 2012 and will host one Round of 16 and one quarter-final tie. The stadium has a retractable roof and half the pitch can be raised up for musical concerts.

Another modern arena that can seat over 50,000 fans, this will provide a fantastic atmosphere for the final group game against Italy.

Making travel plans?

Saint-Denis

is 10km from the centre of Paris and a short Metro ride (on line 13) from the capital’s Charles de Gaulle international airport.

Flying to Beauvais on the city outskirts is a cheaper option, though it will take an extra hour to get into Paris. A slower option is ferry to Holyhead, train to London Saint-Pancras and then the Eurostar to Gare du Nord in Paris.

Bordeaux

is less than two hours by plane from Dublin, but as the business centre of south-west France, is a travel hub too.

There are 20 daily flights from Paris to Bordeaux-Mérignac airport and even more trains from Paris to the Bordeaux Saint Jean.

Lille

provides more options in terms of travel: with no direct flights, you can fly to Paris (then a one-hour train ride, of which there are 30 a day). You can also make a country-tour of it, either going via Brussels, which is only 30 minutes away, or Amsterdam, two hours by train.

Lille’s river Deule is the gateway to the third-largest river port in France and a ferry from Rosslare to Cherbourg would leave you just a short car ride into Lille.

Sights to behold

No trip to Paris is complete with a visit to the Eiffel Tower, where you can get decent city views from 276 metres up. The other main tourist spot is the Basilica of Sacré Coeurwhich is on top of the hill of Montmartre — a steep walk up hundreds of steps, which is one way of walking off all those croissants.

The Tuileries Garden, just by the Louvre Museum and iconic Place de la Concorde, is packed during summer and an ideal hang-out. In Saint-Denis, the famous Place Jean Jaurès market is open three days a week while the recently-opened Pierre de Montreuil Garden, also known as Wilson Gardens, is a nice stroll close to the stadium.

Bordeaux is known as the wine capital of the world and produces 800 million bottles a year.

The old town’s Place de la Bourse is the heart of the town, and reflected in the waters of the Garonne with two pedestrianised promenades, Les Quais, on either side of the river.

A big cycling town, you can hire bikes using the Vélo Ville de Bordeaux, and head for Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrianised street in Europe.

Lille has a geographical and historical link with Flanders and is home to some of the finest beers in France. For scholars, there is also the Palais des Beaux-Arts and the Canonniers Museum explaining the city’s fascinating military history.

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