Tuesday 10 December 2019

Happy to play the waiting game

Ireland manager will wait until the last possible moment to name his starting team for crucial Sweden opener

Republic of Ireland's Shane Duffy arriving for a press conference in Versailles, Paris, France. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Shane Duffy arriving for a press conference in Versailles, Paris, France. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

Around the Irish squad, the feeling is Martin O'Neill will give himself until the last possible moment to name his starting XI for Sweden. It would fit with a campaign of often abrupt late decisions, but also prolong the wait for a few players left wondering whether they will be the ones to make some Irish history. Because, now we're on the brink of another championship fixture after such an extended build-up, it's easy to forget just how special this is - how rare this kind of stage was for so long.

Tomorrow's match against Sweden will be Ireland's 20th at a major tournament, and those few players - Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh, Jeff Hendrick - still waiting to see if they will be selected are also waiting to know if they will be given a chance denied some of the island's finest football figures. Of the five greatest players the 32 counties have ever produced, three of them - Liam Brady, John Giles, George Best - never got to show what they could do in a tournament match. Even Roy Keane, who obviously has his own complicated history with major competitions, never got to play in one at his peak.

There have been a lot of jokes around the squad about how the Irish assistant manager is judging the facilities at the team base in Versailles, but a generally contented Keane is also making plenty of jokes himself.

"My bed's a bit too soft," he said amid many quips yesterday. "But I'm trying to find something wrong."

The truth is the facilities are so pristine and the sunlit setting so perfect that the mood is excellent. Over the last week, the squad have organised a pool tournament, with Duffy and Seamus Coleman the doubles champions having won 10 in a row. On Thursday night, Keane, O'Neill, Steve Guppy, Steve Walford and Seamus McDonagh were able to take a casual late stroll around Versailles, the manager still talking intently about a subject that had sparked his interest in that way he does, as Keane said friendly hellos to passers-by on the wide and regal streets.

It was a world away from the otherwise good-natured chaos of Sopot four years ago, when players couldn't move without getting mobbed by fans wishing them well.

That doesn't mean it's all relaxation or there is any danger of the squad getting too comfortable or sedate. The memory of what actually happened on the pitch in 2012 is still all too vivid for many players who were in Poland, and a deep resolve to make up for that fires all their work. Training has been properly intense, 'competitive' and has had some bite.

While the number of injury niggles - especially to otherwise certain starters like Jon Walters - are a concern, there is a conspicuous and encouraging sharpness to other players. Robbie Brady was repeatedly firing superb whipped crosses in one midweek training match, and causing havoc with nearly every delivery. Most reassuringly of all, given his sudden development into the squad's single indispensable player, Shane Long's shooting was even better. He was regularly scoring with a range of finishes in one training exercise, lashing an effort into the top corner with his first strike, effortlessly curling in the next.

It reflected that kind of unhesitating confidence when a player barely needs to think, and everyone now says he is 'in the zone'. There is little doubt, whatever happens, he will be Ireland's main outlet and focal point.

As regards the rest of the line-up, especially in the face of preparing for Sweden's focal point, there are a few more decisions to be made. Under O'Neill, this regime do not do the most extensive tactical work other than shifts in formation, but he is going to have to come up with something different to try and solve his most obvious tactical challenge from this match. That is because, as Shay Given puts it, "it's hard to talk about Sweden and not talk about Ibrahimovic".

The goalkeeper admitted they remind him a little of Ireland in the 2002 qualification campaign, with one obviously dominant world-class player and a team around him way below his level, but possibly underrated. Ireland are ironically almost a classically pre-Zlatan Swedish team, with a broad general quality across the squad and a lot of competitive functionality - but no world-class star.

For all those reasons, it's equally hard not to talk about how you prepare to beat Sweden without making special preparations for their captain. It also raises one of the biggest mental challenges for O'Neill and his team. Ireland can't overly concentrate on Ibrahimovic, or else it will negatively condition everything about their game, but they still have to come up with something specific on him or else negligently leave themselves open to the dangers he poses.

As to what those dangers are, O'Neill gave a detailed outline, so there is no concern Ireland won't be well briefed.

The Irish manager once balked that - "good grief" - Ibrahimovic was "the most overrated player in the world" when working as a BBC pundit during the 2006 World Cup, but visibly bristled when this was put to him on Thursday.

"That was in 2006, wasn't it? That's how many years - 10, a decade - in which someone is likely to improve," he replied. "He may well have been the most over-rated player in the game at the time, but certainly not now. Some players are allowed to improve in 10 years."

So, Ireland won't be underestimating a player that has either scored or directly set up three-quarters of Sweden's goals since their last qualification in 2012, and it's easy to see why that is the case from O'Neill's description, as he observes: "What happens is he is very strong. The players feel they can play it into him, he can deal with it, make things happen for them as well. He can slide and turn, slide players through with little passes."

The key questions will be do you try to directly battle someone of that presence, or just screen him? Whether to specifically concentrate on what he does, or cut off the supply to him? Keane did say that a lot of it comes down to basic "football intelligence", adding: "If he's 25 yards from goal, then you gotta get to him".

But that probably just reflected a general squad willingness to keep some trade secrets. As Seamus Coleman said when it was put to him whether there was anything different planned for Ibrahimovic: "I'll keep that in-house for now."

Some around the squad feel some of that plan could be to partner Duffy with John O'Shea. The Blackburn Rovers defender is the tallest of the centre-halves at 6' 4", and O'Neill offered further suggestions by regularly mentioning Ibrahimovic's height. Duffy did play alongside O'Shea in Thursday's training game too, although that could be a typical O'Neill switch to allow those sudden surprises.

One thing is certain: he will give Walters every chance to prove his fitness, and the forward is a certain starter if ready. His willingness to work and run while offering a distinctive attacking threat better balances the team, and that offers another reason why Ireland should not overly fixate on Ibrahimovic. This distinctly average Swedish defence, likely to be led by centre-halves from Copenhagen and Krasnodar, is there to be got at.

"We have to have our own game plan," Given says. "We have to create problems for them."

Through doing that, Ireland can also create a proper platform for themselves. A win could be transformative, and much more decisive than in any other tournament. This is something that has almost gone under the radar, and is in danger of being overlooked completely.

The standard belief in every tournament is to avoid defeat in the first match in order to give yourself a foothold, and those close to the Irish squad say that aim has become even more ingrained because of what happened in 2012. Ireland's tournament became a lost cause after the first-game defeat to Croatia.

The changed nature of the tournament, though, means a draw could be a wasted opportunity. With four third-placed teams going through to the last 16, a single win could well be enough to qualify, and ensure this tournament is an undoubted success.

In that sense, it is arguably unfortunate Ireland are playing Sweden first. The natural inclination will be to start cautiously, when that caution will be much more warranted against Belgium and Italy, but not against a mediocre team. It could be a strategic error to begin being willing to settle for a point, although Coleman is not thinking along those lines. Asked would he take a draw, he said: "No, three points. I don't think we have to win this game, but I would not take a point now. Three points."

The Irish team gathered together for the French game on Friday night and many were taken by Dimitri Payet's show of emotion on scoring the winner.

"You can understand how he must have felt in that moment," Coleman said. "I just hope one of us can have that moment and we can put our stamp on this tournament."

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