Key mistakes from Ireland punished by clinical Devils
Belgium 3 Ireland 0
A big defeat, and an afternoon that was almost as chastening as anything that happened at Euro 2012. But there's still one stark truth to all of this that kind of contextualises things beyond that fact that Ireland can still - improbably - reach the last 16.
When there is such a massive gap between the teams in terms of pure talent, sides like Ireland need two things to happen to have any chance of pulling off the win that many were giddily thinking was possible beforehand. They need a roll of refereeing decisions to go their way, and they need to do all of their own jobs to the maximum.
Neither happened, and it all meant that Ireland's second biggest defeat at a major tournament did happen. It makes the 1-1 draw with Sweden all the worse, and the retreat at 1-0 up in that game all the more incomprehensible. There is absolutely nothing comprehensible about this loss, though.
Even allowing for the fact that Ireland probably should have had a penalty when Shane Long's head felt the feet of both Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen, there were plenty of warnings in the first half that they were being pushed to the brink; that they effectively needed something like that decision to both stem the red tide and turn things their way.
O'Neill's side were being pushed back from the start of the game and spent the end of the first half on the edge, as Belgium got closer and closer. Eden Hazard had blazed over, Yannick Carrasco had a strike ruled out for offside and then Axel Witsel had the ball cleared off the line by Wes Hoolahan. Something was coming, so Ireland had to change things. Their luck changed. The first of those two key elements went against them. Referee Cuneyt Cakir waved play on after Long felt the force of two Belgian defenders. It probably should have been a penalty but none of that is any excuse for the second key element succumbing for Ireland just moments later.
The exceptional Kevin De Bruyne instantly tore up the wing, but James McCarthy had the option to either stay with his run or take the yellow card by taking him down. Italy were repeatedly willing to do both in their 2-0 win over Belgium, and that had nothing to do with talent. It had to do with will and application. McCarthy just did not commit in the way he did in the qualification victory over Germany, got caught in two minds, and ended up doing nothing. De Bruyne was left to set up Romelu Lukaku, who expertly curled the ball around Darren Randolph from distance. The goalkeeper was left with no chance and that is the kind of quality you can't really legislate for when you're a team as limited as Ireland, but the key was that they - and especially McCarthy - had the chance to stop the move in the first place.
That is what should irritate too. The referee didn't do his job to the Irish players' satisfaction, but some of them didn't do their own jobs well enough either. It might seem harsh to say that was a continuation from the failure to beat Sweden well in the way they should, but that does look to be the case. All those little drop-offs have a cumulative effect, and mean there is now a big job to be done against Italy. This could have a big effect on the squad's previously buoyant mood right through this campaign. The first goal certainly seemed to.
Once that went in, Ireland just weren't doing any of their jobs as well. The 61st-minute second goal was very poor from an Irish perspective, as O'Neill admitted afterwards. Stephen Ward and - again - McCarthy had drifted away from the men they were meant to be covering, leaving the dangerous full-back Thomas Meunir with ample space to pick his cross. Axel Witsel then had even more space to pick his spot with the header, as John O'Shea left yards around him.
Of course, that goal came at the end of a 28-pass move, and means the defeat must be put in that wider context too. So much for Belgian disharmony. They were so gloriously cohesive. Ireland might have still got away with a draw had they been playing the Belgium that was on the pitch against Italy.
They were not. They were playing a team transformed, both in line-up and mentality, and one eager to make amends for that opening 2-0 defeat. Ireland felt it, especially by the time the revitalised Lukaku rolled in the third on 70 minutes. It seemed that, around the stadium at least, minds were already turning to the next game.
It was still impossible to stop minds turning back to the previous game. After this match, O'Neill had been asked about the failure to create chances. The only opportunities Ireland had were to do with passes rather than actual shots, as both Jeff Hendrick and - of all people - Hoolahan chose the wrong option when a key ball was on. "We didn't create as much today against a very fine Belgian side," O'Neill admitted. "We created a lot of chances against Sweden and if we had taken a couple of those then we'd be sitting here with three points on the board and a great chance of qualifying."
The costly 1-1 draw with Sweden will likely end up the real story of any potential first-stage elimination, regardless of the story of this game. The referee maybe should have given a penalty, and McCarthy and others maybe should have done their jobs better, but the whole team should have pressed home against Sweden.
That could end up the starkest truth of all. Ireland must now press home against Italy but the evidence of what we've seen so far suggests they'll only be going home.
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