Sunday 25 September 2016

Martin O'Neill: Belgium's talent guarantees nothing

Tom Rooney

Published 17/06/2016 | 22:06

17 June 2016; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, and assistant manager Roy Keane during squad training at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, France. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
17 June 2016; Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, and assistant manager Roy Keane during squad training at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, France. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Cold logic and indisputable evidence would dictate that Belgium will be victorious in Bordeaux tomorrow, but in the realm of those intangibles which often decide football matches, the balance of power lays within Ireland’s grasp.

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There is little point in denying that the talent disparity between Belgium and Ireland is about as profound as it gets at this level.

Individually, particularly in the middle third, undertaking a comparison exercise would likely deflate any person of an Irish persuasion.

But, as Martin O’Neill pointed out today, natural ability or lining out for club football’s elite on a regular basis offers no guarantee of a commensurate success.

The former Celtic boss was responding to a jovially asked question; how many of the Belgium side would get into the Ireland team?

“They are very talented, no question about it," he said of Belgium.

"They’re all playing big club football, and they would maybe look at us and see some of our players not playing at the level they play at every single week.

“I think maybe they’d feel they have an advantage like that but it doesn’t always work out that way. But they are really talented and, as I’ve said, individually they’re as talented as any side playing in this competition.

“And, if they went on to win the competition, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to me.”

Ireland proved when scalping the world champions Germany in the Aviva Stadium late last year, and then again when seeing off Bosnia and Herzegovina over two legs, that they can turnover sides said to be their betters.

In the purest sense, Ireland are a team; united behind their manager, willing to go above and beyond in those decisive, heightened moments, and acutely aware that a collective cohesion is their greatest strength.

Belgium, conversely, look like a group of gifted strangers, who have minimal faith in their coach, Marc Wilmots. Thibault Courtois’ comments earlier in the week were the latest evidence of the discord within their camp, even if the chastening loss to Italy renders them a wounded, star-studded beast.

O’Neill will have noted this and, even in the absence of totem Jon Walters, he urged his players to replicate the ambition they played with in the first half of the 1-1 draw with Sweden.

He can do this in the knowledge that, should the game descend into a dog-fight, still undecided in the final moments, his players’ resolve will not wilt, nor that of the Irish supporters.

“There has to be a choice now because Jon Walters is not going to be fit, so we have to make one change anyway. We’ll have a look at it tomorrow morning and decide then.

“When we have possession of the ball, we play with the same confidence we did the other evening. I mentioned this, that the other evening, the most pleasing thing is that we went and played and created chances, because we had a bit of assurance on the ball. Let’s deal with it in the same manner again.

“We’ve got fantastic support and the players said even during the warm-up against Sweden that the atmosphere was electric.”

Italy’s victory over Sweden has handed Ireland a sizable boon in the quest for progression, so too has Antonio Conte’s comments that he intends to rest most of his marquee players for showdown with the Boys in Green next Wednesday.

However, O’Neill only has eyes for the task at hand.

“I’m not exactly sure in terms of permutations just at this minute, we’ll have time enough for those after tomorrow evening.

“What we’ve got to look at is ourselves against Belgium, and I think regardless now it seems that whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s game, we still have to go to Italy having to win a game.”

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