A nation holds its breath
Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30
Martin O'Neill says Ireland are ready to blaze into their Euro 2016 round of 16 match with France in Lyon this afternoon. And the manager pledged that they will take the game to the hosts just the way they did against Italy last Wednesday to seize a historic chance to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
"You want to go blazing," O'Neill said yesterday, "and want to try stay in it because we feel we can do something. We'll go with some confidence into the game, which is the most important thing for us, on the back of the performance against Italy, which is good. They feel they can win it.
"I think the players have recovered in time to show the same zeal and same energy, then we will be ready for it."
And France are expecting a tough afternoon, with O'Neill's opposite number Didier Deschamps warning his players that they will have a major battle on their hands.
"They've got a lot of heart, they work hard, but it's not just that," said the French manager. "There are some good footballers within the team. The large majority of them play in the Premier League, they are used to playing against the top English sides.
"There are lots of good footballers like [Glenn] Whelan, [Jeff] Hendrick, [Wes] Hoolahan if he plays, [Robbie] Brady, [James] McCarthy, Shane Long - these are all players that play consistently at Premier League level, so they know what top-level football is all about."
O'Neill said he will assess the fitness of Stephen Ward before the game, as the kick he received in the Italy game "blew up quite severely", while Jon Walters could yet appear as he is doing "much better" with his tendinitis. Both players took part in yesterday afternoon's training session.
France are expected to play the same team that started the opening game against Romania, with Blaise Matuidi in the middle and Olivier Giroud up front.
Both managers have also insisted that the infamous Thierry Henry handball in 2009 will have no bearing on this game.
France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris believes Ireland will be more intent on making their name at Euro 2016 by dumping the hosts out of the competition than exorcising the ghost of Henry.
"I don't know if the Irish are necessarily out for revenge. That's part of history, that's in the past," he said, adding that because France are the hosts, "since the start of the tournament, we are a little bit the team to beat. That does give the opposition added motivation to try and bring down the host nation.
"That is no doubt going to be another aim for the Irish, but we're not focused on that at all, we're preparing very calmly on our side of things and we need to make sure that we are ready for the battle."
It is a landmark day for Lloris, who will captain his country for a record 55th time, overtaking the mark set by Deschamps. "I have no desire at all to compare myself to Didier Deschamps, what he might have represented as a player or captain, nor indeed Michel Platini. Football evolves, as do people's mentalities," said the Tottenham man.
When asked about the feat, Deschamps joked: "Maybe. He could play, but he might not be captain. I ultimately am the one in charge."
O'Neill yesterday hit out at Ireland's meagre ticket allocation of less than 5,000 for the game in the 59,000-seater Stade de Gerland.
"I think it's totally disproportionate for a stadium of this size and this brilliance, for us, or any team that's going to be playing in the round of 16 here. To be allocated only 5,000 tickets is pretty unfair. It's going to be severely one-sided in that aspect."
Asked whether France's individual quality could prevent Ireland playing as assertively as in the 1-0 win over Italy in Lille on Wednesday, O'Neill dismissed that.
"No, I think the approach is within ourselves, that's the most important thing. We meet this quality opposition on a regular basis at international level. So I think the players are ready for it," he said. "The French are very good players, they play with big teams. They obviously have to be watched very, very carefully. We'll approach it like that but, when we get the ball, we'll try and use it like we did the other evening."
O'Neill also revealed that Ireland have been practising penalties - but joked that there are three unnamed players who won't be allowed in the first five because they keep missing in training.
"We have been practising. We've done that a number of times. So, if we do get to penalties, there are at least three players I know who won't take them! They haven't been able to hit the target too often."