Sunday 25 September 2016

Daniel McDonnell: Opportunity knocks for Ireland with pressure all on the Belgians

O'Neill hoping to capitalise on rising tension in opposing camp

Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30

Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill in pensive mood during training in Bordeaux yesterday
DAVID MAHER / SPORTSFILE
Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill in pensive mood during training in Bordeaux yesterday DAVID MAHER / SPORTSFILE

When Ireland meet Belgium it is seldom friendly. Half a century has passed since the two nations met of their own volition.

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If last Monday was an attempt to banish Stade de France demons, this afternoon in Bordeaux will have older generations thinking about settling scores.

The Irish bench will be familiar with the stories. Goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh was between the sticks in 1981 when a scandalous refereeing performance in Heysel robbed Eoin Hand of the chance to book a place in the World Cup.

Frank Stapleton had a goal chalked out for no apparent reason before McDonagh was beaten late on by a rebound from a free which should never have been given.

This was the era when Belgium was notorious for curious officiating. In these pages, the late Noel Dunne described the injustice as the 'hard luck story to end all hard luck stories.'

Sixteen years later, a team shorn of cruciate absentee Roy Keane lost a World Cup play-off that concluded with tears and retirements. Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton waved goodbye as the ref overruled a linesman to award a throw which led to a Belgian winner. It's the last time that the two nations have crossed paths.

Encountered

Ireland have encountered all the other major football nations in Europe since the turn of the century, be it in a meaningful fixture or a friendly designed to shift some tickets, but Belgium have never come around on the carousel.

In truth, they wouldn't have been considered much of a draw until the blossoming of a new golden generation that has put them back on the map.

This is their first Euros since 2000, and yet they kicked it off as one of the favourites and the top-ranked side. They arrive under the cosh following an opening defeat to Italy, and adding to the pain really would cheer Irish fans with long memories.

Martin O'Neill stressed yesterday that Ireland cannot afford to enter this game obsessing about Belgium; they have to be wary of their danger without sacrificing the ambition that impressed at the Stade de France on Monday.

"Belgium are a totally different side in make-up to Sweden," he said. "And we have to look at the strengths that they have individually.

"But when we have possession of the ball, we have to play with the same sort of confidence. We created chances because there was assurance."

O'Neill was in jovial form as he rattled through a series of queries that ranged from the impact of the rain-sodden pitch to the permutations caused by Italy's win over Sweden and a Belgian query about his relationship with Roy Keane.

"We've locked him up," he joked. "He's caged in as his beard gets longer and uglier and he won't be allowed at this game. He's the werewolf of Manchester."

The soundbite had absolutely nothing to do with the game but drew a few laughs and will likely influence some colourful back pages.

If anything, it emphasised that the relaxed Irish event was a different animal to a fraught Belgian gathering where Marc Wilmots faced queries about squad unrest and stories that a clear-the-air meeting was necessary in the wake of their Italian lesson.

He tried his best to dismiss any threat to his authority by declaring: "I'm the man in charge, I make the decisions."

The awkward questions kept coming though. "That's all part of the football circus," he argued. "I don't believe players are leaking information. This is a game that goes on behind the scenes but it's not a problem for me."

However, his open suggestion that he could make somewhere between two to 10 changes from the Italian match didn't exactly scream stability.

There is chat amongst the Belgian press corps that the squad have resolved to make the best of the situation even if they retain concerns about the outlook of their boss.

They have a range of options which allows them to shuffle the deck, which might make it hard for O'Neill to fully know what to expect personnel wise.

Belgium will have a fair idea of what's coming from Ireland - Wilmots spoke about the diamond system and a break from the stereotype by operating between the lines - although the unavailability of Jonathan Walters has increased the chances of an altered plan from the Swedish template.

James McClean is at the front of the queue to come into what might end up being closer to a 4-5-1 with James McCarthy sitting closer to Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick wide with Wes Hoolahan in behind Shane Long.

O'Neill has other options available, including bringing in Stephen Ward at left-back and freeing Robbie Brady into the centre of the park to aid ball retention.

The 64-year-old feels that the individuals that flagged on Monday because of recent inactivity - such as McCarthy and Hendrick - have benefited from the exercise.

"It doesn't mean that we won't look at some other options," he stressed.

The higher quality and contrasting style of the opposition was always likely to force a rethink, Walters or no Walters.

Certainly, the green shirts did a good job tracking Zlatan Ibrahimovic, knowing that he could burst to life at any minute with his languid style.

It will all happen a little quicker with Belgium as the movement of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne is capable of dragging organised teams out of shape. Atletico Madrid's Yannick Carrasco, a scorer in the Champions League final, is in contention to come into the frame.

Runners

John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark had one main threat to focus on at the Stade de France but in addition to the runners from midfield, they will have their hands full in attack whichever way Wilmots turns with Christian Benteke tipped to be selected ahead of Romelu Lukaku.

The Premier League stars are known quantities, but they have the quality to make life very difficult if they click.

O'Neill said he was unaware of any friction in the Belgian dressing room, diplomatically stating that losing to a savvy Italian operation is hardly crisis territory.

Still, he was content enough to shift the focus onto the top seeds by offering the view that they have the raw materials to claim the trophy.

On a good day they might well do but in Bordeaux, where the weather has veered from torrential showers to fleeting glimpses of sun with thunderstorms forecast, the chink of light for the underdogs is that Belgium can be equally volatile.

With cool heads, Ireland can succeed in piling on the pressure and find out if they really have the answers.

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