O'Neill insists Ireland fear no-one after tough draw
Martin O'Neill last night insisted Ireland fear nobody after his side drew the number one team in the world, Belgium, as well as Italy and Sweden at Euro 2016.
"It's a very difficult group but I'm not downbeat," O'Neill said after last night's draw in Paris. "None of those sides will want to play against us. They would maybe have chosen another pot four side."
Ireland will open their competition in Paris on June 13 against Sweden, before they play Belgium in Bordeaux on June 18. They are likely to base themselves in the north of the country.
O'Neill said Ireland's opponents might consider Ireland "a thorn", but admitted he had come out of the draw in Le Palais des Congres less optimistic than when he had walked in 90 minutes earlier. Ireland were effectively playing against two pot one teams, O'Neill said, having been drawn against Italy. "Our players will show enormous respect to the opposition but I think they'll be looking forward to it."
He also anticipated Ireland's travelling support giving them an advantage. "I think it's a very difficult group for us, but the fans can rise to the occasion."
Antonio Conte, Italy's coach, appeared to be under the impression he was meeting another pot four side as he referred to Northern Ireland a couple of times. "It's an interesting draw. Belgium are a great team with a lot of young, attacking players," Conte said. "Sweden and Northern Ireland are also good teams. Belgium have strong players like De Bruyne. They're a very young team but a good team and will be the favourites in the group. Sweden have Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) who is a strong player. Northern Ireland have a will to win and they bring that into their games."
Ireland will play Conte's side in their final game in Lille on June 22. It will be the last group game of the competition, which may be an advantage when knowing what is required to be one of the four third-placed qualifiers.
"Going into all matches as underdogs shouldn't frighten us," O'Neill said, but he did admit looking longingly at a couple of other groups.
"You're talking about Italy, who are effectively a pot one team, Belgium are considered the best side in the world in terms of their ranking and Sweden, who know about these competitions and have so much experience and just seem to know how to qualify. So it's a difficult one for us but we look forward to it. I don't know why Italy are in pot two. They are a strong side with great history. It's not easy, there's no point in pretending it is."
Sweden's coach Erik Hamren said he had remarked beforehand that it could be "really tough, tough or ok. It's tough".
Belgium's coach Marc Wilmots couldn't attend the draw, but commented afterwards that his side were the favourites to qualify, alongside Italy.
Northern Ireland had it worse as they will play Germany, Ukraine and Poland. "I've seen Michael O'Neill being carried out on a stretcher," O'Neill said, before reflecting on his own lot. "I'm just following him."
Sunday Indo Sport