Wednesday 11 December 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Date with destiny in Stade can shape our Euro adventure

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, left, watches on alongside manager Martin O'Neill
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane, left, watches on alongside manager Martin O'Neill
Ireland players Jeff Hendrick, Jonathan Walters, Cyrus Christie and Daryl Murphy go through their paces at the Stade de France yesterday. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In a stadium where the Irish visits have always concluded with a regret-laden story of what might have been, the challenge for Martin O'Neill's side this evening is to write a new ending.

The group which trained at the Stade de France yesterday contained only a handful of survivors from the near-miss 0-0 draw in 2004 and the infamous hand of Henry World Cup play-off five years later.

Robbie Keane didn't particularly like being reminded and preferred to focus on a "completely different situation".

That night was built around making a tournament. This is about trying to stay in one.

Instead of banishing ghosts, Ireland's primary concern is the present-day threat provided by a Sweden side which rests its hopes on the shoulders of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Read more: O'Neill backs players to handle pressure

O’Neill will have mulled over finding a system that best suits his capabilities. Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau
O’Neill will have mulled over finding a system that best suits his capabilities. Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The burden sits comfortably; he was the focal point of a pre-match press conference where the coach Erik Hamren, sitting to his right, was effectively ignored.

Ibrahimovic was comfortable with the attention. "I've been dominating wherever I go," he shrugged. "I've no issue with that."

He went on to temporarily embrace captain mode by preaching the value of the collective, yet those statements were never going to make the headlines compared to the bombast.

Ireland's press conference was ultimately a more subdued affair. The main message did turn out to be about the value of the team spirit, and the emotions were sincerely expressed.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

After all, those are the attributes which have carried O'Neill's team here.

Read more: VIDEO: Thousands of Irish fans sing the Fields Of Anthenry at the iconic Moulin Rouge in Paris

The Derryman was reminded that he was once dismissive of the 'over-rated' Ibrahimovic and endeavoured to offer an updated version of a quote traced back to the 2006 World Cup.

"He's a top-class player, one of the best in Europe if not the world," he stressed. "Ten years ago that might have been the case. A lot can happen in that time."

The importance of what has happened since Ireland booked their passage to France will become clear when O'Neill sets out their strategy.

He referenced the impatient wait, and the build-up has dragged, as it always tends to do in these situations.

For all the hypothetical discussions about ifs, buts and maybes, Ireland have played four friendlies which have only really succeeded in blurring the lines.

O'Neill has never been too bothered about results in those fixtures and the glass half-full take on Ireland's prospects is that their last competitive appearance, the play-off decider against Bosnia in Dublin, delivered the most complete performance of his tenure.

From the outset, his team was tuned into the task at hand. They pressed hard and unsettled an opposition rearguard that looked to panic under pressure.

When a Swedish journalist told Roy Keane on Saturday that Hamren's players had spoken about frailties in the heart of the Ireland defence, the Irish assistant quipped that the Scandinavians could well have been talking about their own team.

Beneath the joke lies a valid observation: Ireland are capable of hurting the opposition in that department.

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


In truth, the most significant development over the past eight months has arguably been the evolution of Shane Long into a position where it's now unthinkable that the 64-year-old could enter battle without the Tipp native to the fore.

Jon Walters was out early for training at the Stade de France, with O'Neill stating that the main man on the road here had suffered no negative reaction to his first proper work-out on Saturday.

Together with Long, he is expected to encounter Russian-based Andreas Granqvist and Copenhagen's Erik Johansson. They are a physically imposing pair of 6ft 3ins defenders that Long would take in a race on a pitch which tests the energy levels.

O'Neill will have mulled over finding a system that best suits his capabilities.

The narrow midfield diamond with Glenn Whelan sitting, James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick roving and Wes Hoolahan further advanced also allows full-backs Robbie Brady and Seamus Coleman to push forward.

It would be the boldest strategy in a game where the peculiarities of the format create an unusual scenario for an opening game. Ireland cannot afford to lose, yet if they win then there's a fairly strong chance they will make it into the last 16 regardless of what unfolds in the final two games.

There's a fine line between risk and reward.

Read more: 'The Legend' Ibrahimovic insists he's getting better with age

Alterations to his strategy to incorporate James McClean and Stephen Quinn are other options available to the manager, with the latter sure to be employed at some stage of the tournament when the engine room needs an extra body.

The one department where it's hard to read the manager's intentions is the centre of defence, where all four options, John O'Shea, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy, have strong claims for inclusion.

Keane hinted on Saturday that Duffy has played well enough to be seriously considered for selection, and there are reasonably strong vibes that the 24-year-old is in line for a call into the biggest game of his career.

With O'Shea always picked when available and likely to lead out the side, it would be harsh on Clark and Keogh, who did the business together in the play-offs.

Duffy's physical presence was a menace in the draw with Holland, and his ability to make the best of Brady's devilish set-piece deliveries has put him in a strong position.

O'Neill confirmed that Friday's behind closed doors training session - which was described by the FAI as "a walk" - did involve set-piece work.

"We walked through set-pieces," he claimed. "That's what we did. Nobody kicked a ball during the course of the time we were there."

That the slightly odd training episode has been the main talking point of Ireland's final preparations is an indication of how things are relatively stable.

Sweden, by contrast, closed the doors following a public bust-up between John Guidetti and Albin Ekdal. Hamren said that all was well in the camp.

Similar to Ireland, they have faced questions about improving on a group stage exit four years ago. Their fans have also travelled in large numbers.

"The biggest difference with the last time is hopefully on the pitch," said Hamren. "We want the results we didn't get."

That comment combined with the colourful and peaceful atmosphere around the French capital last night, an antidote to the strife in other parts of the country, suggests that these nations have a lot in common.

The task for Ireland is to find the ingredient which sets them apart.

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