Friday 15 December 2017

Martin O'Neill plotting course through latest Euro minefield

Ireland boss looking on the bright side of another difficult draw

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane react as the countries are drawn for Group E on Saturday night ADAM DAVY/PA
Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane react as the countries are drawn for Group E on Saturday night ADAM DAVY/PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Before he arrived in France for Saturday's Euro 2016 draw, Martin O'Neill asserted that he was determined to enjoy Christmas whatever the outcome.

After all, for the smaller nations, the opportunity to be a part of the grandiose ceremony at the Palais des Congres was supposed to be a cause for celebration.

When the main event concluded, though, O'Neill didn't look like he was in the mood for a party.

The last act, which saw Italy dropped into Group E, transformed the scale of the task ahead from a hill into a mountain.

"I think when I get over the initial moroseness, I will be absolutely fine," he said, neatly summarising his thoughts with a dose of humour.

The Ireland boss described sitting next to his assistant Roy Keane during a draw where they knew their location early.

Belgium were a reasonable result from Pot 1, which was drawn out first, but the countdown to deciding the identity of opponents from Pot 3 and Pot 2 built up them up for a fall.

"When we were down to 50-50 (the last two balls in each pot) you were still looking at the sides that, well, you might have chosen," he said. Sweden or Hungary? Italy or Austria?

O'Neill wanted the latter option on both occasions, and was dealt disappointment.

"Given the luck we've had, I wasn't expecting it," he sighed. "Roy and myself both came here thinking we'd enjoy the draw more than we enjoyed it in Nice (the original qualifying draw) and we didn't. It was exactly the same. He used exactly the same language as he did in Nice."

The Derry man confirmed that the specific terms were not printable. He and Keane both feel that Italy's presence in Pot 2 is an aberration, given their pedigree.

"We effectively have two Pot 1 sides," he said. "It's not too long since they've won a World Cup."

Still, while there were an abundance of pessimistic soundbites, it would be wrong to imply that O'Neill had the gait of a man who was down on his luck.

Rubbing shoulders with luminaries of the world game tends to put a spring in the step of the competing bosses; it really does serve as a reminder of what they would have missed out on by falling short against Bosnia.


Crucially, his players have responded to adversity before, proving that they are capable of making their own luck.

Inevitably, the Italian element prompted comparisons to Euro 2012, an adventure that set a low bar, although it would be a stretch to apply the Group of Death label. Group D, which features Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic and Turkey, takes that dubious honour.

The clear contrast from Poland is that four third-placed sides will make the round of 16, which means that Ireland could well still have a chance of qualifying heading into their final match with Italy even if they've lost the first two.

That encounter will bring down the curtain on the group phase, so O'Neill's troops would know the exact threshold for a third-place berth.

Permutations experts had worked out beforehand that a ticket for Group E was the nightmare conclusion as regards plotting a path through the knock-out stage; the runners-up are guaranteed to face a group winner and if one of the third-placed sides comes from Ireland's pool then a round of 16 game with the top side in either France or Spain's group is the reward.

There are kinder routes available elsewhere.

For example, the runner-up in France's Group A will take on the second best in Germany's Group C.

And if England fall short and finish second in Group B, the favourable outcome would be a clash with the runners-up in Group F, which features all the teams O'Neill fancied taking on.

That said, the example of Brazil, where Costa Rica topped a group with Uruguay, Italy and England, demonstrates the danger of planning too far ahead.

Ireland cannot afford to do that. The valid parallel with the last tournament is the significance of the June 13 kick-off with Sweden in Stade de France - a fixture that should generate a special atmosphere yet will also carry the pressure of the perception that it represents the best chance for three points.

Failure against Croatia in Poznan set the tone of deflation that hung over the rest of that miserable experience; the aforementioned get out of jail clause can maintain interest levels but momentum is everything in this format.

"The first game becomes very important," says O'Neill, who felt that the World Cup in Brazil tackled the popular assumption that avoiding defeat in the opener should be the primary focus.

"There seemed to be a feeling out in Rio at the World Cup that teams wanted to try and win the first game rather than being more cagey. That might not be the case (in France).

"I think if you were to ask an awful lot of managers, they would say that when the first game is done and dusted they would rather be still in it than completely out of it. For us, the first game is very, very important."

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots put Ireland and Sweden in the same 'English-style' bracket in terms of playing approach and, Ibrahimovic aside, the Swedes do not intimidate from a technical perspective.

O'Neill was wary about agreeing. "I don't think Sweden will always go direct," he cautioned. "I do think they try to build it up a little bit."

Next up is Belgium in Bordeaux, with Wilmots' substantial Premier League contingent giving a head start on the homework front.

Ireland's top-flight players will know the strengths and weaknesses of the leading figures who will represent the top-ranked team in the world.

The Everton dressing-room will be a particularly lively place leading up to the finals, with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas mixed in with the Irish gang.

Italy once had a side with a heavier sprinkling of stardust, and they are at a stage where a changing of the guard in terms of the main men is imminent.

O'Neill will set about getting on top of it and says that the high-profile nature of the protagonists ensures that there is no acceptable excuse for falling short in the scouting department.

"I know I'm joking talking about concentrating after Christmas but seriously, it will settle down.

"At least we know who we're playing now and in this day and age, there's no reason why we can't just go and see our own players and how they're going but opposition players too.

"We'll get hundreds of DVDs and be well equipped. There'll be no reason whatsoever for us not to be prepared as any side possibly can be."

That attention to detail extends to the entire lead-in. With the first and third games in the north, a base 'not a million miles' from Paris is the preference. Meanwhile, a friendly with Slovakia on March 29 will complete an Aviva double-header against two other qualifiers, with Switzerland up first.

The excellent Harry Arter, who shone for Bournemouth against Manchester United after suffering a personal tragedy during the week, was namechecked as a player who will be auditioned.

O'Neill will ponder the other options in a festive break that will allow him to digest the overall situation.

"Always look on the bright side," he smiled, before making his exit.

A problematic group will test his mettle, but he knows that a busy diary is better than a blank one.

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