Thursday 27 October 2016

Golden oldies, injury worries and your best bet: the bluffer's guide to the Euros

Published 09/06/2016 | 02:30

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill Photo: SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill Photo: SPORTSFILE

The mass exodus begins in earnest today. The first advance parties of the Green Army will assemble at Dublin Airport, the buzz will start with 'sensible' beer-fuelled craic on the plane. The Boys in Green have been in a state of anticipation since November, when flights were booked as soon as the draw was announced.

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The French planners have ordained that the fans are kept on the move, every team playing in three venues. So it's Paris, Bordeaux and Lille for Airbnb rooms, campsites or hotels. Unlike Poznan in 2012, this time we have high hopes of a decent finals run.

'Olé, Olé, Olé', 'The Fields of Athenry' and 'Come on you boys in green' will ring out from the nearest Irish bar or café colonised by the lads - who will be full of camaraderie, never causing any violence.

For those who are unfazed, or even bored, by the prospect of four weeks of footie, it's vital to understand the banter - so here's a bluffer's guide to the Euros.

There are a number of imponderables, such as Ireland's defence dilemmas. Should Martin O'Neill select Robbie Brady at full-back or left midfield, with Stephen Ward as an obvious option? Should John O'Shea or the more youthful (and talented) Shane Duffy partner Ciaran Clark at centre back?

Then there's the dilemma about including the oldies. How is Shay Given (40) in the squad ahead of David Forde? Will captain Robbie Keane (35) get a game? If not, why bring him? He's surely past it, and is playing out his retirement in LA.

Then there are the injury worries: Robbie Keane's calf strain, Jonathan Walters' thigh strain and Shane Long's knee gash are all sources of angst.

You will hear sentences such as "Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden are nothing". But the truth is, if we lose our first match to Sweden, it's likely we'll be bound for an early bath. The world-class Zlatan may now be pushing 34 years of age, but he still scored 50 goals for club and country this season (he's heading for Old Trafford, so it's OK to revile him).

But the question is, can Ireland score? Our likely sources of goals are: from the set pieces (ie, corners and free kicks) with Robbie Brady's left-footed magic; Shane Long's pace availing of counter-attacking early long balls; and maybe Wes Hoolohan's creative midfield openings.

If you are still struggling for something to say to make you sound knowledgeable, talk about terrorist threats, rail or pilot strikes and the floods in France. That should give you plenty of scope to sound like you're interested.

Then there's the small matter of having to qualify for the last 16. To get there, we need a minimum of three points. The first two teams automatically go through. Then the best four third-placed teams will also make it to the last 16. Two draws are unlikely to suffice.

We face Italy in our last match. However, the Italians are probably sending their worst team in 60 years: they are bereft in midfield without Pirlo, Marchisio, Verratti and Montolivo; and they lack a cutting edge upfront. Our prospects are worse against the classy Belgians, alas. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne alone could win any match, although the tactical failings of coach Marc Wilmots are the Red Devils' Achilles heel.

We may as well face it - Irish expectations always exceed our talent pool. So why should it be any different this time?

Well, troublingly, we've got the oldest team in the tournament, with an average age of almost 30. Without Harry Arter, there's no exciting young gun, and no such new player has blazed his way into the team since O'Neill/Keane took over, apart from Cyrus Christie.

There's also the fact that only a handful of Irish players are certain to start next season in the Premier League: Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy (Everton), James McLean (West Brom), Shane Long (Southampton), plus promoted players Stephen Ward (Burnley) and David Meyler (Hull). Realistically, we're relying on 'Leicester City'-type team spirit to progress.

Whenever the Irish odyssey ends, the focus will then switch to whoever eventually wins the trophy.

My punters' guide to Euro 16 predicts a semi-final between the winners of Group A and Group C.

Every pundit has been tipping the home side, France, to win. Their odds have been slashed from 8/1 to 10/3 favourites. This is based on previous home soil titles in the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup 1998 finals.

But all that fanatical fervour can come with unsustainable pressure. The arguments in the host's favour are helped by the presence of Didier Deschamps, who has assembled an impressive squad that got to the World Cup quarter-finals in Brazil two years ago. Going on recent form they should be confident - they secured eight wins in their last nine friendly matches. My possible stand-out players of the tournament are French players - midfielder Paul Pogba and striker Antoine Griezmann of Atletico Madrid.

However, France's defence is dodgy - with the absence of injured centre back Raphael Varane, plus Sakho and Zouma. They must rely on veterans Patrice Evra (35) and Bacary Sagna (33), alongside Man City's Mangala. Diarra is out. Up front, they are dependent on Olivier Giroud instead of the unavailable Karim Benzema should they be in need of late goal.

For an outright winner, I fancy Germany, reasonably priced at 9/2. Critically, their World Cup-winning defence in Brazil 2014 is still in place, with a centre back pairing of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in front of flawless goalie Neuer. Lahm and Mertesacker have retired, along with Close, but seven of the 11 remain, all augmented by the brilliance of Joachim Low.

Disregard their qualification form. Germany will have time to build a winning temperament by the knockout stages. Midfielders Ozil, Kroos, Khedira and Schweinsteiger alongside proven strikers Thomas Muller (a possible Golden Boot) and Mario Götze make them the most balanced team. The Germans look certain to emerge from the easy group of Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland. The only other teams with single-digit odds are Spain (11/2) and England (8/1). The rest for me are probable also-rans. The Iberians' spell of glory is over, while Roy Hodgson relies on too many young guns. And finally, the best long shots could be Croatia (28/1).

So, here we go, here we go...

Irish Independent

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