Monday 11 December 2017

Black Cats O'Shea and Larsson ready to cross swords as friendly foes

Sweden’s Seb Larsson and Ireland’s John O’Shea have been team-mates at Sunderland for the last five years. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Sweden’s Seb Larsson and Ireland’s John O’Shea have been team-mates at Sunderland for the last five years. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Luke Edwards

Seb Larsson and John O'Shea were sharing a moment at Sunderland, celebrating yet another miraculous escape from relegation with the usual mix of euphoria and relief, when they realised the bond between them would soon be broken.

The two Black Cats are close, friends rather than just team-mates. They have worked, played and socialised together for five years on Wearside, but they knew things had to change this summer.

What started as light-hearted teasing at Sunderland's training ground when the draw for the European Championships was made back in December has taken on a far more competitive edge now that both are in France with heads full of patriotic thoughts.

Footballers play against their friends all the time, but rarely in games where the stakes are as high as they will be when the Republic of Ireland face Sweden in Paris today. Nothing will be decided in their first game of the European Championships, but it will feel like it has.

In a group containing the highest ranked team in the tournament, Belgium, as well as traditional tournament heavyweights Italy, this is the game both countries will feel they have to win to stand a realistic chance of progressing to the knockout stage. There has not been a more significant game at France 2016 yet.

"I'm sure John would agree that this first game is the big one," said Larsson, who remains a key member of Sweden's midfield, despite spending the majority of this year on the substitutes' bench at Sunderland.

"Both Ireland and Sweden realise that straight away, that it's a big game, especially with three teams going through.

"If you can manage to pick up a win in your first game, you set yourself up with a very big chance of going through. Everyone is expecting Italy and Belgium to go through comfortably and people are looking at the group and saying it's between us and Ireland.

"But we haven't by any means given up on the other games. I think both Sweden and Ireland will be tough opponents for Belgium and Italy to play, so let's see. Who knows? Maybe both us and Ireland will go through.

"We were laughing when we saw the group. Joking that our game will be the big one for the two of us.

"I've known John for a long time and I'm good friends with him, so I wished him all the best, but we'll be looking to get one over him, that's for sure.

"Once you're over that line, it's always the same. You always know people you play against and it doesn't matter - you do everything you can for your country, he'll do everything he can for his."

O'Shea has never fallen short when it comes to pride in his national shirt.

At the age of 35, he has not talked about retiring from international football, but there is still a good chance this will be his last appearance at a major tournament.

He was part of the Ireland squad that flopped so painfully four years ago in Poland, when they lost all three group games, conceded nine goals and scored just one. They were already out of the tournament by the time they played their third group game.

"I've still got a bit left in the tank," said O'Shea, who will make his 111th appearance for Ireland in Saint-Denis. Especially when there's a major tournament to look forward to.

"(There's) always something left in the tank when it's a special occasion like that. When you go through the rigours of a qualifying campaign to get to a tournament, it's very special.

"It was definitely difficult four years ago. It wasn't just about the quality of the opposition we were facing, it just felt so flat. It was over so quickly. Two of the other teams in our group were the finalists, but throughout the games themselves, we might have still lost, but we'd have liked to score more goals.

"To only score one goal was very disappointing and that squad could and should have done better, you know. Hopefully we're not saying the same about this squad."

Like Larsson, O'Shea made no attempt to downplay the importance of the Sweden game, knowing a defeat would be catastrophic in the same way Ireland's opening game defeat to Croatia was four years ago.

"Without a doubt, the Sweden game is going to be the big one," O'Shea added. "Especially with how 2012 panned out.

"We're definitely going to need something from that first game and Sweden will be thinking exactly the same.

"You want some kind of return in terms of points and ideally it would be three, because it would give you such a boost, not only for the next round, but just for the confidence going into the next games.

"Sweden will be having exactly the same thoughts, but that's the beauty of the competition."

He added: "I wouldn't say it's strange that Seb is on the opposite side. It's brilliant, in the sense that we both know what kind of characters we are, how competitive we are and we'll want to get one over each other.

"It's one of those things, if there's a tackle in the game, or a chance to crash into him, I'm sure we'll both be going in as hard as we ever have.

"At some point, we'll be having a beer together. That's the way it should be.

"It's something to look forward to."

Telegraph.co.uk

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