Swedes target Irish opener as big guns focus on each other
Sweden coach Erik Hamren believes that the opening date with Ireland gives both of the Group E underdogs a serious chance to land a blow that could see them book a place in the round of 16.
He agrees with Martin O’Neill’s assessment that the June 13 encounter with Stade de France will be vital for the sides that will be expected to finish behind group favourites Belgium and Italy.
The bulk of reaction from those two nations centred around the quality of their main rival and the implications for progression to the latter stages of the tournament. Ireland were considered to be one of the trickier fourth seeds, but they have not featured prominently in the analysis.
In Sweden, by contrast, the Irish joust is on the mind. “It’s going to be really, really interesting because the winner of that game has a really good chance to go further,” said Hamren. “If you look at it on the basis of the ranking then of course we fight for third place but you have to play on it.
“I want to be number one but you have to see that Belgium and Italy are the favourites. I said before the draw that there is the possibility to have a really tough group, a tough group and an okay group and I think this is a tough one.”
Hamren was in charge two years ago when Sweden took four points from a pair of World Cup meetings with Ireland with Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspiring the Dublin success. He is used to fielding questions about the Zlatan factor.
“We have just one world-class player but you can do a lot with that too,” he stressed. “Zlatan is not playing alone, we have a team that is really strong and works really hard to make him successful.”
At this juncture, he is not quite up to speed on changes to the Ireland side since Martin O’Neill replaced Giovanni Trapattoni.
“I was really impressed with the Germany result,” he said. I saw some of the play-off games and we know they are good. I haven’t analysed them so much but we are going to do that now. But I like the heart that Ireland are playing with all the time.”
However, defender Per Nilsson, a fringe member of the panel, adopted an undiplomatic stance. “We should beat Ireland,” he said.
Italian coach Antonio Conte was quoted as speaking about Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the draw but when there was certainty about the identity, he trotted out the stereotypical view.
“Ireland, like all Anglo-Saxon sides, play a physical 4-4-2 with great intensity,” said Conte, who will probably be hearing the views of Trapattoni in the build-up to the tournament. “But nobody likes to face Italy; we are an organised team with ideas who can improve.”
The website of La Gazzetta dello Sport put forward its idea of a likely Irish team, stating that the ‘name on the cover’ would always be Robbie Keane. They might be in for a surprise, although the effectiveness of Jonathan Walters was recognised. Shane Long and ‘veterans’ Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea were also mentioned.
Conte’s main priority is getting in as much preparation work as possible for a competition where he wants his players to “attempt something extraordinary”.
Belgium came out on top in a friendly with the Azzurri last month, and the showdown between the key protagonists on June 13 was the focus of the immediate reaction from their coach Marc Wilmots.
“The first match against Italy will be the toughest,” he said. “Conte will not be happy to have drawn us either.
“It’s a tough draw – nothing more. Republic of Ireland we should be able to beat; Sweden we can also beat. We do not have to worry about the players underestimating any matches. They have to be on top form from the start so, regarding motivation, we could not have a better first opponent than Italy.”
Wilmots was speaking from Belgium, having missed the event because of his stepfather’s funeral. His assistant Vital Borkelmans attended in his place.
Head of the Belgian FA Francois de Keersmaecker was not so bullish about the outcome. “Maybe Wilmots forgot to give his rabbit’s foot to Borkelmans,” he said. “However, we must stay positive.”