Thursday 22 March 2018

O'Neill buoyed by Irish attitude in preparation for Bordeaux backlash

Martin O’Neill arrives for yesterday’s press briefing. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill arrives for yesterday’s press briefing. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The big day in Bordeaux is 48 hours away and the manager is under serious pressure.

That's the plight of Marc Wilmots at the moment, with the Belgium supremo on the ropes after being accused of deploying a naive strategy in Monday's defeat to Italy.

Robbie Keane is put through his paces during yesterday’s training session. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Robbie Keane is put through his paces during yesterday’s training session. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill is carrying the hopes of the nation too but in contrast to the post-mortem-style tone of Wilmots' utterings this week, there is a sense that the draw with Sweden has already been digested.

The disappointment which existed in the immediate aftermath is gradually being taken over by satisfaction that the team which O'Neill sent out responded to the challenge of operating on that stage.

For now, at least, they genuinely are taking the positives and moving on.

Wilmots is still facing questions about the reasons that Italy outpointed them. "One team played football, the other didn't," he claimed yesterday, "What I want is attacking football and we have the DNA to play that game. Even if we lose the second game, our philosophy won't change."


In the relative calm of Versailles, Wilmots' opposite number O'Neill will contemplate if it's worth altering the bold Stade de France approach for the meeting with the top-ranked side in Europe and the initial favourites to advance from Group E.

He is conscious that the Belgians are a wounded animal, that it's entirely possible that Ireland will feel the full force of the backlash.

And yet he is of the belief that clever formations are never enough to win games; it's the application of players that dictate outcomes.

Finding the balance to allow the Ireland to showcase their strengths is the mission, even if the pragmatic call will be a tinkering of the strategy to counter the threat presented by what he keeps describing as the most talented group of individuals in the competition.

It is inevitable that containment will be a major part of the homework.

"They have the players in big leagues every single week," O'Neill says, "If they are disappointed with themselves for not playing well against Italy, they will feel they can rectify it.

"Whatever you say about them, the little lad from Chelsea, Hazard, is a world-class player who can beat people. They will cause us problems so we have to show the same spirit and determination again and try and play as strongly with the ball as we did the other night.

Read more: Brady: Ireland have the players to give Wilmots' men a good trimming

"They will be different to Sweden in terms of build-up and approach and how they play but there's only so much you can do.

"Players like Ibrahimovic and Hazard will eventually break you down as they are good players. The message we are trying to get through to the players, what we are trying to do, is to be confident on the ball, deal with it, and that was the most impressive thing of all from the [Sweden] game for me, that the players believed that they could play, take time to get out and play."

The tactical chat stemmed from a question about a talking point in Belgium. Were the Red Devils unable to cope with Italy's 3-5-2 formation? Would Ireland contemplate such a switch?

Given that O'Neill has talked about adopting that shape on numerous occasions without ever doing so in a meaningful match, the percentage answer is a firm no, although team shape without the ball can vary.

"Lads, I would say one thing," cautioned O'Neill during his lengthiest press conference since arriving in France. "You love talking about systems and I don't want to feel old school but players win and lose games.

"I would definitely consider a number of things and we have to be adaptable. But the great, great Brian Clough said it, the game is still simple - when you haven't got it, you have to work your guts out to get it back again. When you do have it, then if you have talent around you, then you have a chance.

"I don't think it (Belgium result) has anything to do with the formation. They would have known how the Italians set up long beforehand."

The rest of the week for O'Neill will involve devising a set-up which he wouldn't have included in his own pre-tournament calculations.

Entering a fixture without Jonathan Walters is a worry. He was almost ever-present in qualifying, with the away leg in Bosnia an exception that he can draw encouragement from.

On that occasion, Robbie Brady was pushed forward into midfield with Stephen Ward at left-back. James McClean remained on the bench.

O'Neill gave the latter a strong mention in discussing alternatives, and his energy would certainly supplement a midfield department that flagged as the first match developed. Stephen Quinn is another live option.

Jeff Hendrick has no reason to fear for his place, however, as it's abundantly clear that his display in the diamond system thrilled the 64-year-old.

"Jeff played brilliantly," he said. "He had a bit more of a free role - although he still worked back defensively for us along with James and Glenn.

"If you are going to have full-backs going forward then you are going to have to have a bit of protection for the centre-backs, particularly when you are playing the sort of players you come up against in the European Championships.

"Jeff got forward though and I think that Jeff gets great confidence from the fact that I think that he is a really decent player. He was a revelation against Sweden. Robbie Brady too and for them to be that confident, to think, 'I can cope with these things' was great."

Read more: 'We respect Ireland'

He will ask the group to adopt that attitude despite being shorn of Walters, a talismanic presence along the road to here.

O'Neill conceded that his desire to field the Stoke man against Sweden was borne from the realisation that he lacks a like-for-like replacement.

As Wilmots steadfastly refuses to acknowledge problems that were exposed on his rough night, the Irish boss is adamant that he will avoid getting bogged down with his only real headache.

"You don't want to make too many changes but you might have to do that," he shrugged.

"Just because Jon Walters is not going to be fit for a match, you shouldn't think, 'Aww' and get into a state and think you're not going to solve it. We'll have to solve it somehow."

The right attitude will test Belgium's ability to cope with adversity.

Irish Independent

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