Moment of truth for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland

And so we arrive at a point of definition in Euro 2016: a knockout game before the knockout stage, a cup final to gain access to another cup final.

Or, at least, such is the Irish perspective going into tonight’s final Group E game against Italy here in Lille. The dangerous assumption from the same perspective about the opposition is that this game being, in stark contrast, an occasion of little consequence to them, their attitude and performance will suffer accordingly.

But even if Antonio Conte’s side is effectively Italy B, that still means Ireland will be up against some of the, let’s say, top 30 footballers that country has to offer.

So we’re not talking Ragball Rovers here.

Asked about the wholesale changes expected of Italy tonight, Martin O’Neill said yesterday that it wouldn’t surprise him, given that “one, they have already qualified; two, they have a number of players on yellow cards who are very important for them and, three, this is tournament football and no-one would know better than the Italians about (the value) of giving some players who’ve played two games in a few days a rest, when it’s possible. That’s what most coaches would do in the position they are in.”

But the Ireland manager also was quick to add that the players who will don the famous shirt of the Azzurri will be, “regardless of the changes in the team, very dangerous — because they’re Italy. The players will come from Roma, AC Milan — big places. They’re top quality players and we have to be ready for that. And I think that we are.”

Four years ago in Poznan, the roles were reversed in the final group game between these two countries, with Giovanni Trapattoni roundly criticised for fielding what he clearly genuinely believed was his strongest team for the third game in a row.

Trap’s argument — doubtless coloured by a concern that he couldn’t be seen to do special favours for his homeland — was that he had, as he put it, “a duty to the tournament”. Others were quick to point out his first duty should have been to his own team.

What few seem to have considered going into tonight’s match is that, for Antonio Conte, doing good by his own team and doing good by the tournament might not necessarily be mutually exclusive concepts.

All of which is merely to say the onus will be still be on a team which needs the win to do everything in its power to get it. Half measures won’t suffice, even if Italy are at less than full strength.

And, of course, Ireland will be weakened too, unless Jon Walters experiences a Lazarus-like resurrection between now and kick off. Walters was unable to join in training in Versailles yesterday morning before the team departed for Lille, which left O’Neill rating him as “very doubtful” — surely, in the circumstances, a euphemism for ‘no chance’. And that could raise the possibility of Daryl Murphy being sent in to give Shane Long some support upfront. Shane Duffy, for both his defensive power and — at set-pieces — attacking threat could be an even bigger surprise pick, given that it would mean he would be making his competitive debut in the biggest game of O’Neill’s tenure.

But while it won’t be all change for Ireland as it will nearly be for Italy, Martin O’Neill will still be hoping that the significant alterations he’s expected to make in his starting XI injects the team with the energy, hunger and ambition — but also the composure — that the Irish brought to bear against Sweden but which all but deserted them against Belgium.

And, one hopes, no-one will need reminding that Wes Hoolahan was at the heart of everything that was good about the performance, especially in the first half, in the Stade de France. The manager was asked yesterday if Ireland’s famous victory over Italy at USA ’94 might be used a galvanising reference point for the current group of players but the Derry man replied by making the entirely valid point that this is a team entitled to seek inspiration from its own much more recent achievements.

“None more so than the night in October when we beat the world champions,” he said. “When you say it like that there, it seems to disappear into the ether but we beat the world champions on a night when we had to win. And that was an extraordinary result against a side which, months earlier, had gone to Brazil and won the World Cup. That was a great moment for us, inspirational enough for us to go and beat Bosnia in the play-off matches. We don’t have to go back to ’94. We can just draw on that recent one because it was this set of players that did it. And it’s that set of players that gave us the opportunity to come here. And much as we’ve enjoyed the days we’ve been here, we’d like to stay a little bit longer.”

If that’s to happen, Ireland can’t afford the tentative start they made against Belgium, or the individual errors which riddled that display. Even if this is by no means one of the strongest Italian sides ever fielded at a big tournament, the Irish will still be required to punch above their weight to get the desired result.

But they have done it before. And, with a bit of luck — well, okay, probably more than a bit they can do it again.

It’s worth noting that overnight, Uefa were due to make a decision on whether the roof on the stadium should remain closed this evening, in anticipation of heavy rain that it is feared will make the controversial pitch — which is due to be completely replaced on Friday — even more treacherous.

But the point remains: ask not what the Italians — or the dodgy pitch or the fanatical support — can do for Ireland; rather, ask what Ireland can do for themselves. O’Neill and his players still have their Euro 2016 destiny in their own hands. There can be no greater incentive than that.

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