Tuesday 23 January 2018

No reason why Ireland shouldn't get out of this group

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane at last night’s draw
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane at last night’s draw
Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Martin O'Neill said last night that the draw could hardly have been more difficult. Belgium, Sweden and Italy are who Ireland will face in France, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they can qualify out of group E.

First of all, the expanded 24-team format allows for plenty more optimism than when Ireland last reached the finals of the Euros. Back in 2012, the importance of an opening day win was huge.

The defeat in the second game ended Ireland's hopes of progressing. In France, even if the Sweden game ends in defeat, Ireland could possibly still be alive going into the final game whatever happens against Belgium. Three points could well be enough to clinch one of the four best third-placed finishes.

And if Ireland are in that position, the fact that group E is the last to conclude means they will know exactly what is required. You wouldn't bet against this Ireland team beating that Italy team on their day, after picking up four points during qualification against Germany.

Quite apart from assessing the opposition, Ireland have shown enough in the latter stages of this campaign, particularly in both legs of the play-off with Bosnia, that they are a team on the ascendancy. The players put in their best displays. The team picked up their finest results. You can imagine the belief now among the players as a result of both. They should have no reason to think they can't pick up points from each of the three games.

Add in the team spirit which is so evidently strong among the players, Ireland can go to the finals with genuine hopes of reaching the knockout stage.

That said, if they don't produce the kinds of performances they showed in the last few months, they could well return home in June without picking up a point.

Sweden are not a one-man team as so many people will lazily suggest in the next six months.

They have an outstanding player in Ibrahimovic, who is genuinely world-class, but that doesn't mean their hopes are limited to him playing his best. Italy don't have the quality of creative and attacking players that they have produced so often in the past, but they didn't lose a game throughout qualification. And Belgium have the kind of individual talent in many positions that Ireland could only dream about.

If the players do themselves justice there's every chance they'll make the last 16.

Sunday Indo Sport

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