Monday 15 July 2019

Stephen Hunt: Opportunity arrives for up-and-coming crew after O'Neill's brave calls

Declan Rice (main pic), Enda Stevens (top left), Kieran O'Hara (bottom left), Darragh Lenihan (top right) and Derrick Williams (bottom right). Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Rice (main pic), Enda Stevens (top left), Kieran O'Hara (bottom left), Darragh Lenihan (top right) and Derrick Williams (bottom right). Photo: Sportsfile

Stephen Hunt

The Republic of Ireland's game in Turkey at the end of the month is another significant step for the five young players who have been named in Martin O'Neill's squad and an opportunity to win another cap for those with just a handful to their names.

Travelling abroad with the senior Ireland squad, playing international football in a new arena, being a part of the training sessions and meetings; they are all part of the experiences they will take from the trip. There will be a nice buzz around the camp and hopefully they'll all want more and prove good enough to get it.

Martin O'Neill has been brave in his selection and picked players in form. It's good to see the Blackburn pair Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams get their call-ups, and Manchester United 'keeper Kieran O'Hara. He is a good 'keeper who I've seen a few times at under 23 level but he needs senior games now to prove he will be the next in line to challenge Darren Randolph.

We will have a senior debut for Declan Rice, who could be our first-choice centre-back for years to come and it is a deserved opportunity too for the likes of Matt Doherty, Alan Browne, Scott Hogan and Seán Maguire, who has clearly worked his socks off to get back to fitness. Anyone who tears his shirt off after scoring when they have been out injured is showing off how much gym work he's done!

Anyway, as these lads gain experience, they will learn about international teams and their style of football.

On the subject of football styles, it was no surprise that Giorgio Chiellini, the Juventus defender, was full of praise for Tottenham and the way they played after his side beat them in Wembley last week. He had plenty of opportunity to see how good Mauricio Pochettino's side are. They just weren't quite good enough. The one thing you will discover about Italians is that they love to be boring. They see football as a tactical game, not entertainment. How many entertaining Italian teams have you seen over the years?

Chiellini said the Juventus players were waiting for their moment. They have that mentality to be stubborn and resilient and, although they undoubtedly rode their luck, they hit Spurs with a sucker punch. Twice. Within minutes. They then saw the game out in the typical Italian style, sitting back and breaking up the play.

It reminded me of the qualifying games against Italy under Giovanni Trapattoni. We absolutely battered them in the first game at Croke Park and when we went in front, we were ecstatic, the crowd were going bananas, we were dreaming of victory and suddenly Pirlo pings a ball over the top and it's 1-1. Once again, they saw the game out. And it was the same in the second game in Bari. We had more possession, more chances and they managed to grind out the result.

They just had a mentality to deal with the pressure and our energy. Spurs came up against the same on Wednesday night.

Manchester United will beat Sevilla and the way they are playing, they will take 1-0, even if the Old Trafford crowd on a European night will be expecting much more.

It promises to be cagey, because Sevilla don't have to go for it at 0-0, but United have the players to win the game. Marcus Rashford's pace might just be the difference.

And I expect Alexis Sanchez to come alive. He was signed for nights like this. He has a big game in him after a slow start at Manchester United which comes, I think, because he is knackered. He has to put a lot of graft in off the ball and he has needed time to get up to speed with Jose Mourinho's demands. Even if he had scored seven or eight goals so far, people would still be expecting more from him but I think Sanchez will prove to be a big-game player for United.

This is a big week for Antonio Conte. Chelsea are not going to win the league. They are in a battle for fourth and right now it looks like Conte will not be there next season. The Champions League is his chance to sign off with the big one.

My own theory about their performance at Manchester City is that maybe Conte was trying to protect his team for the Barcelona game and making sure he gave nothing away to the Barcelona scouts watching in the stands.

He took Eden Hazard off with ten minutes to go against City and no one in their right mind would do that in normal circumstances. Conte might be thinking down the line about what is more important.

He will have said to his players that he planned to take Hazard off to rest him and protect him. Hazard is going to be back in business in Barcelona and he will be absolutely crucial if they are going to progress.

Hazard's body language when he came off was not great and I think Conte has to use Morata or Giroud as a No 9 and let Hazard free in his favourite role, getting the ball deeper and running at the Barcelona defence with the ball at his feet. He needs a focal point to play off.

I think Chelsea will score. I just don't know how many Messi and co will get.

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