Ireland 0 Belgium 3: When Ireland’s Euro 2016 isn’t being very different to Ireland’s Euro 2012, it’s being, well, much too alarmingly like it.
The contrast, four years apart, between the opening group games – against, respectively, Croatia and Sweden – could only have been greater had Ireland taken three points instead of just the one against the Swedes.
Where the best Giovanni Trapattoni’s team could manage against the Croatians was a brief spell of parity on the scoreboard before a Luka Modric masterclass helped his side push on to a 3-1 win, Martin O’Neill’s men could and really should have been home and hosed against Sweden even before Wes Hoolahan’s stellar goal provided the breakthrough.
The failure to hold onto that lead, which – correctly as it now seems to be turning out – we feared was something that might come back to haunt Ireland in a big way in this competition, was the only disappointing aspect of a performance which, for the vibrancy of the team’s attacking play, was the best of its kind under O’Neill’s watch.
But Belgium are not Sweden.
What we saw on Saturday in Bordeaux was humbling, an uncomfortable reminder of the murder on the Gdansk floor when Ireland had the misfortune to come up against a superlative Spanish team at Euro 2012.
It’s worth stating Belgium are not Spain either – and certainly not the aristocratic version which dominated European and world football for four years – but Marc Wilmot’s side do have an attacking triumvirate to compare with the very best on offer at these championships. And, with more than a little help from Axel Witsel, it was Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku who left Ireland bewitched, bothered and bewildered in Bordeaux.
That much, a lesser team has to take on the chin perhaps. But what was deeply disappointing from an Irish perspective was that on the few enough occasions when we did get on the ball on Saturday, it was as if players like Jeff Hendrick, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady had left all their confidence, composure and, yes, joie de vivre behind in the Stade de France. And James McCarthy has never seemed less like the influential midfielder he was hyped up to be in recent years.
Roy Keane had insisted there would be no fear factor going into a game against the team ranked number two in the world but that’s not the way it looked on Saturday as a conservative Ireland retreated into their shell almost from the off, with no escape plan evident other than to soak up pressure and send a series of long punts forward in the hope that the pace of the wholly isolated Shane Long would get him in behind the Belgian defence.
Once or twice, a trademark turbo-charged burst of speed into the channels did threaten to make the best of the kind of wayward service that other players would just give up as a lost cause but, more often than not, all Long received for his efforts was a physical battering which the referee did little to alleviate.
As ever after a comprehensive defeat, the manager will stand accused of getting his selection and tactics wrong but O’Neill can hardly be held responsible for the clumsy touches, imprecise passes, mistimed tackles and poor decision-making by individual players which littered this performance.
Again, it has to be said that even Ireland at something close to their best would have struggled to contain a Belgian team which made a mockery of the pre-match consensus that low spirits and disharmony in the camp after their opening defeat to Italy would make them distinctly vulnerable.
Instead, with players like Hazard and De Bruyne in the form they were in on Monday the elevation of the individual over the collective turned out to be a plus not a minus for the Belgians — not that at any point in proceedings Ireland ever did much to test if their apparently new-found positivity might be any more than skin-deep.
The absence of Jon Walters was probably never more keenly felt. Even struggling through the pain barrier against Sweden, his warrior presence and footballing intelligence had been reassuring in the Stade de France. Before the weekend, we had all sought reassurance too in the reminder the big man had been missing when Ireland had achieved that admirable point in the qualification play-off in the fog of Zenica – and with a very similar side, it might be worth noting.
But, on Saturday, under the unexpectedly blazing sun at the Stade Nouveau, it was crystal clear just about the only thing the national teams of Bosnia and Belgium have in common is the same initial letter.
There’s every possibility that Ireland will again have to plan without the Stoke City man for Wednesday’s game in Lille against Italy. Since many people put misplaced faith in supposed Belgian disarray coming to the aid of Ireland’s cause in Bordeaux, we should now be wary of assuming that a less than full-strength Italian side, with qualification already in the bag, will be only too happy to roll over and have their tummies tickled this week.
Once again, there’s a hint of Euro 2012 in the air although, this time, it’s actually a case of role reversal in the final group game, with Italy the ones who could, if they so wish, be forgiven for regarding the match as a dead rubber, and Ireland the side who know that nothing less than a win will suffice if they are to have any hope of prolonging their stay at Euro 2016.
To that extent, at least, the scenario is very different from four years ago. It’s not over until the fat lady sings, even if that is something at which, unfortunately, Italians tend to be world leaders.
What Ireland did over the course of that rollercoaster qualifying campaign – clutching victory from the jaws of defeat – is something they will now have to do in the concentrated pressure of the finals. And, today and tomorrow, perhaps the most crucial job for Martin O’Neill and his staff will be to try and restore the battered confidence of a side that must still be wondering what hit them in Bordeaux.
Courtiois; Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, Dembele; (Nainggolam 57), Carrasco (Mertens 60), De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku (Benteke 82)
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND:
Randolph; Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Ward; Whelan, McCarthy (McClean 62) Hendrick, Hoolahan (McGeady 71), Brady; Long (Keane 78).
Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).
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