Friday 19 January 2018

Martin O’Neill set to roll the dice in search for happy ending

But Ireland will have to find another level from Bordeaux to extend their Euro 2016 stay beyond this evening's clash

Ireland head coach Martin O'Neill. Photo: Reuters
Ireland head coach Martin O'Neill. Photo: Reuters
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Lille will quickly disappear from the memory unless Ireland defy the odds and produce a tournament-defining performance this evening.

It rained heavily yesterday, just as it has rained for most of the last month.

The forecast for today is thunderstorms, meaning that the roof on the Stade Pierre-Mauroy has effectively prevented UEFA from having to move games away from a city which is closer to Belgian than French in terms of its personality.

When it rains here, it pours. Martin O'Neill will be hoping that it's not a metaphor for the direction of Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign after the gloom of Bordeaux.

Training at the stadium was off the agenda because of concerns about a playing surface that will be replaced on Friday, so his visit consisted of an unimpressed look at the pitch and an animated chat in the dugout with Roy Keane and Seamus Coleman.

When the match ends this evening, the squad will head straight back to their base in Versailles to either prepare for a trip home or a round of 16 tie at the weekend. It's the definition of win or bust and, prior to his brief walk on the drenched turf, O'Neill attended one of those press conferences where he could only really state the obvious about the task at hand. "The players know what they have to do and they're ready for it," he said, in his first response.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge


At the end, the tone was similar. Questions that went off the beaten track were swatted away. An attempt to draw a response to Marco Tardelli's criticism of Irish football intelligence was shrugged off by O'Neill and coldly dismissed by Coleman.

Tardelli wasn't an especially popular figure in the dressing room, although it could be argued that his successor, Keane, did flirt with a similar line of criticism by speaking about the lack of Irish street smarts against Belgium.

O'Neill has acknowledged that they have to be sharper in every department if they are to produce an upset that would shape the legacy of this adventure.

There's been an Italian element to quite a few major Irish moments on this stage and that is the case again.

Both O'Neill and Keane have tried to dismiss the significance of Antonio Conte fielding an understrength side and they were never going to handle that question any other way.

The Chelsea-bound manager was adamant that he will be approaching the fixture with the utmost seriousness, pointing out that Italy ruined Norway's Euros prospects last October when they had already qualified.

"It's not a useless game to us," he asserted. "It's not a dead rubber. It's a fixture we want to win, we want to keep going because winning breeds confidence and self-esteem.

"I don't like people saying it's a game for our substitutes. This is a match for those who've played a little less than other players. And we will make decisions which show what the game means to us."

That was interpreted as a hint that he would make fewer than the reported nine switches. Upon questioning, however, he did not rule out that eventuality.

In some ways, Conte's reshuffle will add an uncertain layer to Irish preparations as homework based on their two wins could be rendered irrelevant.

But, while the fringe players have a point to prove, and can operate with a certain freedom, the removal of the experienced spine that has underpinned Conte's six-point haul is undoubtedly a boost to Irish hopes.

Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Daniele De Rossi will be missed. The question is whether O'Neill's charges have the ability to capitalise on it.

Conte might encounter a different Ireland too, at least in terms of personnel. O'Neill said at the start of the competition that he would freshen his side with three games in nine days but he only made one change from Sweden to Belgium.

The expectation is that he will mix things up now with some notable casualties. Ciaran Clark and James McCarthy are tipped to lose out and there are even suggestions that John O'Shea is vulnerable to an defensive overhaul.

Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long were taken off in the dying stages of the Belgian reverse, a move which left the impression they were being saved for the decider although he refused to confirm they would both start.

A reversion to the diamond system that worked against Sweden would suit Hoolahan but the expected unavailability of Jonathan Walters complicates that system. O'Neill says he's 'very doubtful'.

Daryl Murphy or James McClean would have to come in as support for Long. That shape is also vulnerable to width and if Italy stick with 3-5-2 then it would pose obvious problems.

O'Neill kept his cards close to his chest, and it's possible that he might keep one of his creative performers in reserve to spring from the bench for the conclusion as an alternative to the James McClean/Aiden McGeady/Robbie Keane formula.

The 64-year-old said that Ireland need to be 'strong' in the early stages and stay in a contest that might be decided by just one chance.

That said, his use of Robbie Brady tends to have an impact on the team's overall approach. At left-back, he offers an extra attacking dimension that was evident against Sweden, but he's also a midfield alternative to McCarthy. Stephen Quinn's energy could land him that slot though.

"We started tentatively against Belgium," said O'Neill, "We have to start on the front foot rather than the back foot and everything else will fall into place.

"Early in the game, we can get confidence by doing the right things. Getting support to players like Shane Long becomes vital and I think that's what we would be looking to try and do. But we don't want the game to run away from us early on."

He spoke as though he was anticipating a tense evening and, for the travelling fans, the nail-biter would be preferable to a deflating anti-climax.

It will take a monumental effort to make it a night to remember.

Irish Independent

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