Despite being billed by many as among the favourites to win Euro 2016, Belgium currently find themselves off the pace as the only team in Group E with no points and no goals following their 2-0 defeat to Italy.
But Martin O’Neill reckons their status as wounded animals will only make Marc Wilmots’ side an even greater threat against Ireland on Saturday.
“They are very dangerous,” he said. “They will be really disappointed they didn’t get something out of the Italian game. They will be looking at this group thinking they and the Italians are the strongest sides in it and here they are sitting with one game played and no points on the board.
“If they are disappointed themselves with not playing well against Italy, they will feel they can rectify it. They have players playing in the big leagues every single week. Whatever you say, the little lad for Chelsea, (Eden) Hazard, is a world class player who can beat people. They will cause us problems so we have to show the same spirit and determination we showed against Sweden and try and play as strongly with the ball as we did the other night.”
As one might expect, the manager still retains mixed emotions about that 1-1 draw in the Stade de France.
“I felt great joy at the way we played in the game,” he said, “but, eventually, the disappointment is that we didn’t take the three points when three points look as though they might go a long way to taking you through.”
Asked to reflect on some of the outstanding individual Irish performances on Monday, O’Neill was happy to echo the widespread praise for Jeff Hendrick’s display in the middle of the park despite similarly widespread misgivings on the eve of the tournament, prompted by what the manager admitted was the player’s “rusty” showing against Belarus at Turner’s Cross.
“Jeff played brilliantly against Sweden,” said O’Neill. “He had a bit more of a free role although he still worked back defensively for us along with James (McCarthy) and Glenn (Whelan).
“If you are going to have full-backs going forward then you are going to have to have a bit of protection for the centre-backs, particularly when you are playing the sort of players you come up against in the European Championships.
“But Jeff got into the game quickly and had a couple of shots. The goalkeeper has parried one which was a good shot and then he hits the bar. He got great confidence from that and I think that Jeff also gets great confidence from the fact that I think that he is a really decent player. He did really, really well in the game and he wants to take it on.”
O’Neill was even more effusive about man-of-the-match Wes Hoolahan, stating categorically: “This was Wes’s best ever game.”
The playmaker’s substitution was brought on by tiredness and he appears to have suffered no further reaction to the slight tightness in the calf he began to feel during the match.
“Wes was really tired in the game and he just pointed over to me that this was the case,” O’Neill explained. “I understood this.”
The manager also addressed concerns that the Norwich schemer might struggle to manage a second game for Ireland in quick succession.
“I think that during the course of a season when you are playing a lot of matches in the Premier League that this might be the case,” he said. “He was feeling tired and, again, he was one of about players whom I was concerned about in getting through the game.
“When you’re getting tired and it’s one each in the game, then don’t risk it, at the end of the day. We have a tournament here ahead of us, you know. You want to make sure that it’s okay. I think he’s alright but yes, of course, there’s always that issue with somebody who looks 22 but is 34.”
Asked if he would contemplate a change in system to ape the Italian 3-5-2 for which Belgium had no answers in Lyon, O’Neill’s answer revealed something of the essence of his footballing philosophy as a manager.
“I think we will have to be adaptable,” he said. “If there is a possibility of even thinking that a 3-5-2 could win the game, I would consider it. I would definitely consider a number of things, and if it means we have to fall back into something else…
“But, lads, I would say one thing: you love talking about the systems and I don’t want to feel old school but players win and lose the games. The great, great Brian Clough said it: the game is still simple — when you haven’t got the ball, you have to work your guts out to get it back again; when you do have it, if you have talent around you, you have a chance.”
O’Neill also confirmed that there will be a pair of Irish eyes spying on Italy v Sweden in Toulouse tomorrow before all the attention turns to the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon.
Meanwhile former Ireland manager Mick McCarthy says he believes that Belgium’s golden generation is overrated and Ireland can prosper.
“I’ve never been convinced that Belgium are one of the best teams in the tournament,” he wrote on his Paddy Power blog. “They remind me of some of the old Dutch sides that were full of amazing individual talent, but never really gelled as a team. Wales took four points off Marc Wilmots’ side in qualifying and that should give us confidence.”
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