Man for man we are as good as Italy, says Kevin Kilbane
Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30
Former Ireland international Kevin Kilbane feels there is a simple reason for believing that Ireland can progress from their group at Euro 2016 - he says that Martin O'Neill has players with the individual quality to match two out of their three opponents.
Kilbane expects the Bordeaux showdown with Belgium to present the sternest test because of the talent they have at their disposal, while he subscribes to the popular view that O'Neill's men can enter the opener against Sweden with confidence.
However, after watching Italy during qualification, Kilbane is not convinced that they deserve to be billed as clear favourites for the concluding encounter in Lille.
"They are a big name but I think man for man we're as good as Italy," argued the 39-year-old. "I've covered every single Italy game through the qualifiers, and honest to god I don't see any real threat within that side.
"It's a big statement but I think we are. Matteo Darmian - he's not as good as Seamus Coleman. Up front, Graziano Pelle is not as good as Shane Long.
In midfield, they've good players. Marco Verratti is a good player, he would get in most sides in the world, but defensively they're vulnerable. I saw them struggle against Malta and Azerbaijan and for pace, that's one thing they will struggle against.
"Still, my problem would be if we've got to beat Italy in that last game. I think they'll probably do enough just to get a draw so I think we've got to beat Sweden. We're going to be pinning our hopes on that Sweden game, probably in the same way we did Croatia four years ago. But that Croatia team are above and beyond Italy and Sweden."
Kilbane is optimistic that the momentum from the play-offs can spill over into France and it's for that reason that he has joined the chorus of voices expressing the wish that O'Neill and his assistant Roy Keane stay on for the World Cup campaign.
He is slightly surprised that O'Neill is yet to sign a new contract with the FAI and feels it's inevitable that a release clause will be inserted in the event that a high-profile Premier League club comes knocking. In the case of Keane, his former team-mate, he is of the opinion that the Irish role has come along at just the right time.
"I think he's enjoying the job at the moment, it's probably suited him. I think the lads have really enjoyed working with him and he's enjoyed working with the lads in a less pressurised situation for himself.
"He's doing a good job alongside Martin and, I'd like to see that continue and go through to the World Cup with both of them because I think that it's working.
"It (contract) seems like it's a fairly straightforward deal to do. It should be. You'd think it could have been done three months ago but contract negotiations now seem to go on forever - it seems to be different than what it was 10 years ago. But I'm sure if Martin did sign a contract, there'd be a clause in his place. It would be on his terms if a job or option came up for him."
Kilbane was speaking ahead of the FAI Junior Cup quarter-final draw at the Aviva Stadium, the venue that will play host to next month's double header with Switzerland and Slovakia.
Last week, he watched Chris Forrester line out for Peterborough against West Brom and floated the ex-St Patrick's Athletic midfielder as a future international. He has stressed, however, that he was thinking longer term as opposed to the summer. Realistically, he feels that Harry Arter and Alan Judge are the relatively new faces who are seriously knocking on the door.
"I think he (Forrester) is destined to play at a higher level," he said. "It's certainly good ahead of the World Cup because he's got to be now pushing the likes of Jeff Hendrick, Glenn Whelan, all these sort of lads. He's probably in the same mould as Glenn because he puts his foot in, breaks up play and he dictates tempo of the matches."
Kilbane laughed when the subject of Ireland's preparations for France were raised. As a survivor of 2002, he knows that all questions will eventually come back to Keane and Saipan. He joked that at least the drama ruled out any danger of boredom creeping in.
"In many respects it killed a lot of time," he smiled. "This time (Fota Island) it's hardly the other end of the world. I don't think there will be any major issues."