Brian Kerr: Martin O'Neill must change attitude, system and team for Italian job
Demoralised Ireland will be difficult to lift for final outing after being cruelly exposed by talented Belgians
It was like a scene from a schoolyard where the resident bully strides menacingly into view.
Seventy minutes were on the clock, two Belgian goals were on the board and James McClean was on the pitch, charging down the left flank, intent - we assumed - on making his mark.
Yet, he had company. Thomas Meunier, the little known Thomas Meunier, moved to close down Ireland's most aggressive player, the one who had landed Arkadiusz Milik on his backside when he visited Dublin with Poland last March, the guy whose arms are covered in tattoos, the one Irish player, you could say, who doesn't mind a bit of rough.
So McClean - with his 27 years, 40 caps, tattooed arms and big reputation - has the ball and Thomas Meunier - with his 24 years and his six caps - has not. Easy to determine who'll win this battle, isn't it?
Well, it was easy …… for Meunier. With perfect timing and controlled aggression, the Belgian defender took the ball off McClean the way a Leaving Cert bully would snatch it away from the little kid with glasses in first class. Short of saying, 'you're with the big boys now, lads,' was how the incident played out.
Fifteen seconds later - after Stephen Ward was caught out of position and Robbie Brady was caught out with a clever pass, and God knows how you would describe Ciaran Clark's failure to get man or ball, when he went sliding across the Bordeaux turf to try and dispossess Eden Hazard, Belgium had broken away from their corner flag to the far end of the pitch, where Romelu Lukaku registered their third goal of the game.
There and then an afternoon spent in the French wine region was beginning to have a sobering effect.
The truth hurts. And the truth is, that once the original game-plan, which was to keep the Belgians out and survive, was dispensed with, and once the team started to play more openly, we got destroyed. There were individual errors for each goal - James McCarthy diving in on Kevin de Bruyne for their first - McCarthy losing his marker, Axel Witsel, for their second, before McClean, Ward, Brady and Clark made things so much easier for Lukaku to get the third.
After that performance, whatever questions people had about Belgian morale can be swiftly dismissed. What was visible on Saturday - from the moment their players went through their warm-up - was an intent to do a job. Purposely, I was studying their body language during that pre-match routine, looking for signs of discontent. And I didn't see any. Instead, all I saw was a group of men who were waiting to do something.
And they delivered.
Having said all that, one key moment could have changed everything. Less than a minute before Lukaku's first goal, Shane Long, standing in and around the penalty spot, was clearly kicked in the head by two players, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen. Now think back to last October, the qualifier in Warsaw, when Long again was the victim of a kick to the head, this time by Michael Pazdan, the Polish defender. Ironically the referee in that match, Cuneyt Cakir, was the same official who chickened out of giving Ireland a penalty on Saturday.
Did that incident change the course of the match? We will never know. Yet the psychological impact of a goal in any game - but especially one like Saturday's - tends to be huge. Had we been awarded, and then converted, a penalty, we would have had something to cling on to.
Therefore the tactical shape, which had worked well from a defensive perspective in the first half, could have been used again in the second period. With a goal in the bank, we would have had something to fall back on. Who knows how Belgium would have reacted to falling behind. They may have panicked. The intensity of their attacks may have increased but would they have had the composure to equalise? Or would Ireland's confidence and solidity have improved on the back of going ahead? We don't know. Clearly this was the stand-out moment in the game.
Yet we can't get away from everything else that happened.
Having expressed my fears in Saturday's column about the need for freshness, we saw only one change (which was enforced by Jonathan Walters' injury) to the starting line-up. Now, on one hand I cannot quibble about the team Martin O'Neill selected because it facilitated the introduction of Stephen Ward, which freed up Robbie Brady to play higher up the pitch. Furthermore, in the first half, the Irish team dealt well defensively with what Belgian had to throw at them - Hazard's misdirected shot being their only real chance despite the incessant pressure the Belgians were applying. If anything, McCarthy (below) and Glenn Whelan were doing a good job protecting our central defence. However, whenever we tried to attack, hopes that we would retain some possession evaporated. With our midfield and defence positioned so deep, we continually resorted to hitting it long to Long.
Was this a tactical instruction? Or were the players thinking, 'right, we got this great goal against Germany from a similar fashion, let's try it again'. Well, as a tactic it was much too uncouth, a strategy that has no finesse, and while the service towards Shane was poor and misdirected, Long's deficiencies - in terms of the awkwardness of his touch - were exposed.
That said, credit Belgium for how they handled him. Thomas Vermaelen had a really good game - and with assistance from Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld, Belgium's defence succeeded in unsettling the Irish striker, roughing him up while benefiting from a referee who didn't do us any favours.
Yet this was not the only area Belgium came out on top. They dominated everywhere.
We didn't look vibrant, they did. Against Sweden, we were first to the ball, here we were second. Against the Swedes we played with confidence. Here we played with fear.
And once Lukaku scored that opening goal, confidence seemed to surge through the Belgian team. All of a sudden we were forced to open up a little, the consequence being that there was more space and time for Hazard and de Bruyne, Witsel and Carrasco to play.
No sooner did this happen than the vast discrepancy in quality was exposed. There was a purpose and togetherness to their play, rendering all the talk about the alleged troubles in their camp as nonsense. Players of their quality can rise above things like that. As soon as I saw their warm-up completed, and watched them undergo a ritual of exchanging hugs and backslaps, it seemed clear they intended to rise above the problem.
And then they rose above the Irish problem. Quite easily in fact.
Should we be surprised? The answer is no. Because whatever we can say about strategies and team selections, when you compare the substitutions that each side made, the difference in quality was even more apparent. From Marc Wilmots came three introductions from the bench - two earning a living in Serie A (Roma's Radja Nainggolan and Napoli's Dries Mertens) and one who earns a corn at Liverpool (Christian Benteke).
O'Neill, meanwhile, looked at his options and decided against the player who is in and out of the Hull City team, choosing instead a winger from West Brom, a forward from LA Galaxy and a winger who Sheffield Wednesday released back to his parent club in the week of the Championship play-off final.
So are we comparing like with like? Of course not. But for all my desire to see changes, O'Neill's options were scarce in areas where change was most required - centre midfield and up front. The Ireland manager - on Saturday - picked the right team.
Did he go with the correct strategy, though? Well, that is a different question. I am unsure how much shadow play this team practises, where they go about working on defensive and offensive ploys in advance of a game like Saturday's, against more talented opposition, where a counter-attacking strategy is clearly called for.
What was clear - in the first half especially - was that the players knew which positions to take up to retain a solid defensive shape. But their attacking plan, aside from this desire to hit the ball long, was less obvious.
Some suggested we should have pushed higher up the pitch which would have helped us on the counter-attack.
That theory evaporates when you think of how the second half unfolded, though. Two of their three goals came from counter-attacks. The further we pushed forward in search of an equaliser, the more trouble we found ourselves in.
And therein lies the difference between them and us.
We lost to a team with better, faster, cleverer and technically more proficient players. That's the bottom line. We were a threat when we managed to get some set-pieces in attacking areas, even if the referee did not appear to be on our side. We needed to pressurise their defence and test them, and early on, when all four forward players were fresh, we did that. But we did not have the fitness levels to sustain that policy; the accuracy and speed of their passing draining our energy away.
So deeper and deeper we dropped and while the system O'Neill used on Saturday was preferable to the diamond midfield which was in operation against Sweden, we were inefficient on the counter-attack.
Unlike the Italians - who did a counter-attacking smash-and-grab on Belgium - our key midfielder appeared tired and I wonder, in the weeks and months ahead, if it'll become clear that McCarthy was not fully fit, in the same way that we discovered in the aftermath of Euro 2012 that Shay Given wasn't right for the games in Poland.
Looking ahead, where do we go? We go to Lille needing a win against Italy and while some will advocate a gung-ho approach, my advice is to be cautious but to use the ball better and to get around the pitch quicker.
Lots of thinking has to be done by Martin and Roy. Huge decisions have to be made on the line-up, the system, the overall strategy.
And therein lies the problem. Wes Hoolahan may not have another game in him and McCarthy doesn't look fit so Stephen Quinn has to come in. But who else? Is David Meyler good enough? Long may need a rest - but is Robbie Keane, whose day has gone, or Daryl Murphy, who has yet to score an international goal, the answer?
In defence, the idea of replacing Ciaran Clark with Richard Keogh or Shane Duffy is logical. That's the easy choice. But nothing else is easy.
Therefore, it will take a supersonic motivational performance from Martin to convince his players they can do it, that one bad game does not make them a bad team. Three or four changes to the starting XI would certainly do no harm.
Look at it this way, that ploy paid off for Northern Ireland.