Toothless Ireland blown away by ruthless Belgians in Bordeaux
Published 18/06/2016 | 14:47
SIXTY nine minutes had elapsed when the Irish fans broke into a rendition of Fields of Athenry.
It was a throwback to Poland four years ago that was in keeping with what was unfolding on the field.
For Gdansk, read Bordeaux. For Spain, read Belgium. Within seconds, the top ranked side in the competition responded by drilling home their dominance.
An Irish attack floundered, Eden Hazard skipped away from a wild Ireland challenge and the path was cleared for Romelu Lukaku to comfortably slot home his second of the match.
Belgium were three goals ahead and well on their way to three points. In truth, it looked like game over after they scored their first just after the restart, another break that culminated with Lukaku wheeling away in celebration.
The deserved outcome, the heaviest competitive loss under Martin O'Neill, means that Ireland have to win against Italy in Lille on Wednesday to book their place in the knockout phase.
What the 24-team format has succeeded in doing is giving teams another opportunity to emerge from a grim position.
Unfortunately, this Irish display will have done little for the confidence levels. The main source of optimism ahead of that fixture will be the fact that Italy boss Antonio Conte intends to field an understrength side as they are now confirmed as the group winners.
With the main prize in mind, O'Neill withdrew Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long in the dying stages of this encounter to preserve their energy levels as this was a tiring exercise.
The game was scoreless at the interval following a nervy 45 minutes that tested Ireland's ability to work without the ball.
They did a reasonably good job in terms of closing down red shirts and restricting them to half chances and set pieces. The problem was that Ireland lacked assurance in possession which continued to invite pressure and drain the battery.
O'Neill made one personnel change from Sweden with Stephen Ward in for Jonathan Walters but that switch instigated a move to a 4-2-3-1 with Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick wide of Hoolahan who was deployed behind Long.
It was closer to a 4-5-1 with Long isolated and a target for punts forward as white shirts struggled to get forward and support the Southampton attacker.
The frustration for Ireland is that Belgium didn't actually look too comfortable on the few occasions that the underdogs pressed on and a heavy touch from Hoolahan wasted a golden opportunity to release the unmarked Hoolahan. He was stopped by a fine challenge from Toby Alderweireld.
The latter came closest to opening the scoring when, ironically enough, his accurate header from a corner was cleared off the line by the head of Hoolahan. Belgium had their moments; Atletico Madrid's impressive attacker Yannick Carrasco was one of their new faces and he had an effort chalked out for offside while Eden Hazard and the gifted Kevin de Bruyne were off target with speculative attempts.
Darren Randolph was not called upon to make any top drawer saves but, damningly, he attempted more passes than any other Irish player before the interval.
It summed up the pattern of the play and, two minutes after the restart, he was picking the ball out of the net. The circumstances were contentious as Belgium played on with Long clutching his head in the area after taking a high boot from Alderweireld with Thomas Vermaelen also blocking his path. Turkish official Cuneyt Cakir, an unpopular figure with the Irish camp, waved play on.
Belgium broke at speed and the imperious De Bruyne skipped away from a hesitant McCarthy challenge - the Everton man perhaps fearing a booking that would rule him out of Italy - and teed up Lukaku who showed admirable composure to take his time and curl in a left footer.
The genesis of the strike left a bad taste, and Ireland refused to kick the ball out of play when Moussa Dembele was prone minutes later, but any sense of injustice evaporated as Belgium went on to comprehensively assert their dominance and get their show back on the road.
Reports of friction in the camp had perhaps lulled Ireland into a false sense of security; scoring goals tends to function as a unifying force and Belgium went ahead to put the game out of sight.
After the hour mark, they put it to bed following a patient passage of play which put James McCarthy to sleep. Axel Witsel ghosted in behind to apply a firm header on a Thomas Meunier cross which Randolph was unable to keep out. O'Neill responded by hooking the Everton midfielder, putting Brady in his place and sending for James McClean.
However, the newcomer was dispossessed in the build-up to Lukaku's third and Ireland were incapable of reducing the deficit with Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane sent on in search of a lost cause. Marc Wilmots utilised his bench too, albeit in different circumstances. Irish misery was summed up by two shots that were blocked by their own men.
By the end, it was the Belgians that were making all the noise with Ireland fans left to rue the profligate performance at the Stade de France on Monday. They have 90 minutes left to put it right.