Grim lesson poses major questions
Belgium 3 Ireland 0
Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30
The Irish team bus headed for the airport when it left Stade Nouveau de Bordeaux on Saturday evening.
A short flight back to Paris lay ahead, the final window for players to dwell on the memories of a comprehensive defeat at the hands of a high-class Belgian outfit. "The most important thing for us now is to put it to the side," stressed Martin O'Neill, who accepted a fair outcome.
Few could argue with the sentiment. There is no time to wallow in the disappointment. No point in getting angry with the players that failed to do themselves justice.
If Ireland are incapable of beating Italy in Lille on Wednesday, there will be a lengthy opportunity to engage in post-mortems. The squad will carry the regrets with them as they embark on summer holidays earlier than other national teams with similar or inferior resources.
O'Neill couldn't resist mentioning what might have been if his side had capitalised on their performance against Sweden seven days ago. His work over the next 48 hours will determine if that lament becomes the soundtrack of the summer. The Derryman has to earn his money now by figuring out what changes are necessary for a finale with an unusual plot line.
Last December in Paris, Italy were the final side drawn into Group E and their arrival as second seeds turned a tricky group into a daunting one.
O'Neill questioned their second seed status and that point has perhaps been vindicated by the fact the Azzurri are confirmed as group winners with a game to spare. That comfort has succeeded in making them a less intimidating opponent.
Some reports in Italy are claiming that manager Antonio Conte will make as many as nine changes with six men on yellow cards and others feeling the effect of two tense wins.
They have good options to come in, with Roma's Stephan El Shaarawy and Juventus attacker Simone Zaza talented players that will be desperate to impress.
It's defensive rotation that might help Ireland with a switch from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 anticipated as Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are set to be rested along with keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Sometimes, the absence of pressure can allow a side to operate freely. But there will also be the knowledge that stiffer tasks lie ahead and Conte will have to balance up the importance, particularly if it's a tight affair entering the final quarter.
The reality, however, is that Ireland will have to lift the performance level several notches to stay competitive.
O'Neill will have mulled over a painful lesson before a return to full training in Versailles this morning, a session that will prove to be their last run-out in the temporary base unless they pull off an upset. The 64-year-old acknowledged on Saturday that his team were extremely poor in possession, a failing that invited Belgium on with inevitable consequences.
It wasn't the only reason for concern, though, as James McCarthy toiled again before being replaced on the hour mark. The 25-year-old is shipping plenty of flak for his mental approach, and he was guilty of errors of judgment, but he does appear to be physically struggling after an interrupted preparation. "James was tired," said his manager. "That's a natural consequence of having less possession when chasing the game."
The Everton player has failed to finish either match, and the Derryman might be tempted to try an alternative approach. Robbie Brady spent the last 30 minutes in a central role and could slot in.
Then there's Wes Hoolahan, who found it much harder to be effective in the hole behind an isolated lone striker, Shane Long, than he did against Sweden in a diamond with two front men ahead. O'Neill chose a 4-5-1 on Saturday but a reversion to his favoured system may well depend on how Jonathan Walters progresses.
He was kicking a ball and engaging in light jogging before the match in Bordeaux and will need to do much more today to seriously come into contention as a starting option. Daryl Murphy is kicking his heels and could enter the equation. James McClean would be the unorthodox replacement.
Long would benefit from a dig-out too; it was no surprise when he was called ashore following a bruising day that was exacerbated by the unsympathetic Turkish ref Cuneyt Cakir.
The irony of Long's penalty shout just before Romelu Lukaku broke the deadlock at the other end is that Cakir awarded an Irish spot-kick in Warsaw eight months ago that was arguably a tougher call. Reverse angles illustrate that Saturday's decision should have been clear-cut.
Long was understandably fuming in the aftermath, but the pressing worry for his manager - who was reluctant to make a big deal of the penalty fiasco when his team were clearly second best - is that the attacker has been restricted to half-chances across the 180 minutes. Murphy is one of six outfield players yet to make an appearance. The identity of the others - Richard Keogh, Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, David Meyler and Stephen Quinn - backs up the theory that O'Neill brought too many defensively-minded performers.
Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady are impact subs at best, and the unavailability of Harry Arter has turned out to be a major setback as his presence would be an easy way to give McCarthy a break.
However, there is an argument for refreshing the centre of his defence. O'Neill likes the combination of John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark but the latter now has the Swedish own goal and Saturday's rough second half to add to the misery of a morale-sapping season at Aston Villa.
Keogh is a safe pair of hands, while Duffy is the youngster with nothing to lose and an aerial threat which suits the need to capitalise on every possible opportunity. Ireland's best players across the two games have turned out to be the other 24-year-olds - Brady and Jeff Hendrick - which presents a compelling argument for trusting in youth.
The deployment of Brady is another dilemma for O'Neill. He does have the aforementioned ability to make things happen when placed further up the pitch. On the flip side, his presence at left-back encourages Ireland to come out of their shell and impose on the opposition. That's why he was the source for so many promising moves at the Stade de France.
Tournament football exposes simple truths and the sad reality is that Ireland have a limited pool of individuals that are really capable of producing moments that settle matches.
O'Neill is much more open to change than his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni yet it's feasible that he will end up using fewer players than the Italian did in Poland. When Brady went down clutching his groin before the interval on Saturday, the instant response was panic. Thankfully, it turned out to be the kind of slapstick pain which kept You've Been Framed on the television for years rather than anything serious.
There were periods of the second 45 that bordered on humiliation for Ireland. If Belgium deliver on their potential and win the tournament, then history might well rewrite the extent of the suffering.
Marc Wilmots admitted afterwards that he was bluffing by giving the impression he was going to drop Lukaku and the masterful Kevin De Bruyne. That he has the options to make such a thought believable tells a story in itself.
Wilmots beamed with satisfaction after a fraught week, and delighted in rubbing it in the face of the sceptics. "I live with criticism," he said, "Apart from death, I don't know what else could really affect me. People who criticise are never going to have a good life."
If Ireland die a similar death on Wednesday, then O'Neill will come under fierce scrutiny from people condemned to bad lives. Bordeaux will be forgiven if the ambition that created misguided optimism returns for the Lille mission.
The fear is that Ireland's best might not even be enough.