'We'll be underdogs for all the games at Euro 2016... that won't frighten us' - Martin O'Neill
MARTIN O'NEILL believes that the draw for Euro 2016 has gone against Ireland but suggested that the traditional ability to respond to underdog status and a positive approach to the opening game with Sweden can be the key to securing qualification.
His charges will meet third seeds Sweden in the Stade de France on Monday June 13 before taking on the top ranked side in the world, Belgium, on Saturday June 18 in Bordeaux and then finishing up against the strongest second seeds Italy in Lille on Wednesday June 22.
"Each time the draw seemed to go against us," said O'Neill, whose side are in Group E for the expanded 24 team competition and were drawn out before Sweden and Italy. He looked enviously at Group F, a weak pool which contains Portugal, Iceland, Hungary and Austria. The last two sides to be pulled were Italy and the Austrians and O'Neill was hoping for the latter.
"I felt it was a tough draw," said the 63-year-old, "There were other groups we'd have preferred to be in; each time it was 50/50 with the teams still left in it and each time it fell the other way.
"Italy should really be in Pot 1 so we're effectively talking about two Pot 1 teams, two top class teams. Belgium are considered the best side in the world in terms of their ranking and Sweden, who know about these competitions and have so much experience, just seem to know how to qualify whether it's the easy way or the difficult way.
"I've just said jokingly that I was looking forward to the draw a hour and a half ago and maybe not so sure now but listen, I tell you what, I think the fans will rise to the occasion and rather than being disappointed, I think they will feel enthused by the difficulty of the games. Knowing that we're going into all the matches as underdogs.. I don't think it should frighten us. I think our fans will look forward to it. They know that when it is difficult we are perhaps at our best.
"I will be giving nothing up. We have a real chance. The first match is very important and, if the World Cup in Brazil is anything to go by, then teams try to throw off the shackles in the opening match and go for it."
Sweden coach Erik Hamren feels that it's a testing outcome for his troops. "I said before the draw it could be really tough, tough, or ok. It's tough. But it's the same in all the groups. There are different styles and teams in our group."
Meanwhile, Italian boss Antonio Conte seemed confused about which Ireland he would be encountering. "It's an interesting draw," he said, "Belgium are a great team with a lot of young attacking players and Sweden and Northern Ireland are also good teams."
Conte's comments were wired through UEFA's official translation service so it was unclear if the error came from his side. It was then repeated. "Northern Ireland have a will win and they bring that into their games," he said.
"Belgium have strong players like De Bruyne. They're a very young team and will be the favourites in the group."
Belgium coach Marc Wilmots said: “It’s a fairly tough group. The most annoying thing is that we’re playing Italy in the first game. It’s always difficult to recover if you lose your first game. But the Italians will not be happy to have been drawn against us either.
“We will not have time to grow into the tournament. We will have to be at our best from the first match. Italy and Sweden we know very well these teams from having played them recently. With Ireland, there are a lot of a long balls, it’s a direct game.
"We are the favourites, along with Italy, to advance to the next round. We want to go as far as possible. The semi-finals would be great and then we will see where we can go from there. I have players who have ambition.”