Italy’s late winner against Sweden in Toulouse drew a throaty cheer from the Irish press contingent looking on from Bordeaux yesterday, the supposition being it might make the Azzurri, how shall we say, just that little bit less desperate about securing victory in the final group game against Ireland in Lille next Wednesday.
But, not long afterwards, in the nearby press conference room of the Nouveau Stade, Martin O’Neill rightly put the focus back on what is a difficult but attainable goal for his own team — qualification from the group by winning one of their two remaining games, beginning with today’s meeting with Belgium. For all that we’re being told that the Belgians are in a state of disharmony and disarray, it’s hard to imagine players of the quality of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne losing their heads so comprehensively over the course of today’s 90 minutes that the Irish will only have to say ‘boo’ to them to tip them right over the edge and out of the competition.
It’s a nice thought and maybe it might even come to pass in some shape or form, but it’s far more likely, as they did in taking four points from six against Germany in qualification, Ireland will have to give everything in their power to extract a positive result from this game.
O’Neill, having first noted it wouldn’t come as “a major surprise” to him if the Belgians recovered from their opening game defeat to go on and actually win the competition, then did a good job of underlining the essentials his players will need to have with them when they take to the pitch at 2pm.
“These are big games for us,” he said, sitting beside John O’Shea. “I don’t think John will mind me saying we will have to be ready for this game. We have to be mentally tuned in, we have to be as physically strong as we can possibly be and we can’t afford a 15 or 20-minute period where we fall into a lull.
“Other sides in this competition, with obviously a lot of talent at their disposal, can maybe afford to do that. But we can’t. We have got to be at it. But I think the players have shown just that for quite some time. Maybe since the disappointment of Scotland over a year ago, I think competitively we’ve been there, we’ve been fighting for every ball and we haven’t allowed games to disappear. We’ve had to play very strongly to get to this position and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue that.”
O’Neill’s concern about a 15 or 20-minute lull suggests the still raw experience of how Ireland ended up drawing a game they should have won in the Stade de France has not been lost on the manager and, by extension, the players.
But it was another lesson which he drew from that game which gives cause for some optimism not all of today’s match against, at least on paper, a team of manifestly superior talent will see Ireland revert to pure containment in the face of dominant possession by the opposition.
For sure, it would be foolish not to expect a good deal of that but even as he acknowledged the big adjustment that will be required of his players in taking on the Belgians after the Swedes, O’Neill was still at pains to stress he progressive capabilities of his players which were on such vibrant display at times last Monday shouldn’t be left behind in the Stade de France.
“In terms of the way we approach the game, hopefully it will be the same kind of approach,” he said. “In terms of tactics and strategy, it will be a little bit different. They’re a totally different side to Sweden. But, as important as anything is, when we have possession of the ball, we play with the same sort of confidence as we played the other evening. That was probably the most pleasing thing — that we went and played and created chances because of our assurance on the ball. So let’s deal with it in the same manner again.”
This isn’t just the fighting talk which has provided the familiar managerial soundtrack in the build-up to so many games over the years where the Irish have gone in as underdogs. This is a philosophy which gives equal weight to style and steel — and that’s both refreshing and encouraging to hear.
Inevitably, O’Neill was asked yesterday about Northern Ireland’s victory over Ukraine and, as you would expect, he hailed it as “an absolutely terrific result”. But he was also quick to add, “my allegiance is obviously with John and his crew. I’m selfish about this — I want us to get through first.”
A win this afternoon, a result which would rank among the greatest in Irish football history, would achieve O’Neill’s ambition at one stroke. Certainly, the second bite at the cherry offered by the final group game against Italy will take on the appearance – however deceptive – of something like a comfort blanket should the Belgians prevail today, especially since five of the Italian team are on yellow cards and manager Antonio Conte has already indicated that he will not risk some of his first-choice players in Lille ahead of the knock-out stage.
Between Belgian woes and Italian jubilation, there might appear to be a window of opportunity opening in Group E to the boys in green, but that’s to overlook the fact that not all is perfect in the Irish camp either. O’Neill’s men have to go into battle without one of their key men, Jon Walters, and with much depending on how his replacement — probably James McClean but possibly Stephen Quinn — handles the challenge of stepping into those big boots.
The popular consensus has been that today’s match presents a contest and a contrast between a team that punches above its weight and a team that’s less than the sum of its gleaming individual parts. But there may yet be other factors which will have a significant say in the outcome. An untimely tram strike here in the city won’t prevent the Green Army getting to the ground on time by hook or by crook but there is now growing concern that the atrocious weather, which is set to continue in Bordeaux today, could play havoc with an already sodden pitch.
Whatever about all that, one thing’s for sure: O’Neill is spot-on when he says that Ireland will have to be, in the vernacular of the dressing room, “at it” today.
And you suspect that will need to be the case regardless of whichever Belgium shows up.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved