Thursday 29 September 2016

O'Neill backs players to handle pressure

Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30

O’Neill last night said that his squad are ready to cope with the stage which they fought so hard to reach. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
O’Neill last night said that his squad are ready to cope with the stage which they fought so hard to reach. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill believes his players have the mental strength to cope with the special Stade de France atmosphere and the threat presented by a confident Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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The Sweden captain was in typically bullish form on the eve of the Group E opener with Ireland, asserting that "the legend can still deliver" when asked about his desire to keep going at 34.

He is relishing the opportunity to play a major tournament game in the city which has been his home for the past four years, but O'Neill (right) last night said that his squad are ready to cope with the stage which they fought so hard to reach.

"Naturally it's a big occasion," said the Irish boss. "It's an emotional type of game - football is in general. I think our players can deal with that.

"This is what they're playing the game for. We deserve to be here, so let's try and do something about it when we are."

The 64-year-old was reminded of a ten-year old quote where he questioned if Ibrahimovic was over-rated, and asserted that his view had changed in the intervening period.

"He's a top-class player, he's one of the best in Europe," said O'Neill, who doesn't feel that it's a must-win encounter in a format where three sides could possibly advance.

"He's Sweden's talisman and he will be hard to keep quiet during the course of the game."

Blackburn defender Shane Duffy is understood to be in with a good chance of starting the match after impressing in the preliminaries, with prowess in the set-piece department strengthening the 24-year-old's claims to get the nod ahead of Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark.

O'Neill confirmed that the team did go through some work on dead balls in Friday's hushed-up visit to the training ground in Versailles.

Jon Walters trained over the weekend and if he gives the medical staff encouraging signs today then he will get the nod to support the in-form Shane Long.

"Jonathan is feeling pretty good," said O'Neill ahead of a run-out at the Stade de France. "He's feeling fine and I very much hope he's available for us."

O'Neill admitted to a sense of the relief that the start has come around after the long build-up since Walters' brace against Bosnia booked the ticket.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "We've been waiting rather impatiently for this and we're looking forward to getting on with it.

"It would be great to get off to a great start. I'm sure Sweden are targeting us in the sense they will feel if they beat us, it gives them a great chance.

"It was interesting to hear comments from the Welsh camp who thought if they didn't win the first game, they weren't out of it.

"They're saying now (after winning) they still have work to do and that's exactly the way I would feel about it.

"The way the competition has evolved and way it's been sorted, I think the third game you're still going to be in it fighting for something."

O'Neill added that he will make personnel decisions factoring in that his side face three outings in eight days with rotation for Saturday's date with Belgium in Bordeaux on the cards.

Irish Independent

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