Ireland can banish past international demons at Euro 2016
Lee Gormley | February 2, 2016
Ireland can prove their worth in France
Following a disastrous Euro 2012 campaign under the guidance of former boss Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic of Ireland will have a relished opportunity to banish those past demons later this year as Martin O’Neill’s men embark on a hopeful journey to France.
At Euro 2016, the latest Irish set-up have a great chance to redeem themselves and truly forget the torrid memories of those underwhelming performances in Poland and Ukraine, with this summer’s tournament a reward for their more recent defiant qualification heroics.
Under O’Neill and his trusted right-hand man Roy Keane, Ireland battled through a challenging qualifying Group F, overcoming world champions Germany before toppling Bosnia and Herzegovina in the play-offs to secure their position in France.
Ahead of the prestigious tournament, the Boys in Green have been drawn in another seemingly testing roster of international giants, with O’Neill preparing for clashes with Belgium, Sweden and Italy, in a group which they are 15/2 with Coral to finish top of this summer.
More encouraging mentality under O’Neill
The reign of experienced Italian coach Trapattoni had its success, with the former AC Milan mentor leading the Irish to their first major tournament since 2002 when reaching the previous 2012 European Championships, and only narrowly missing out 2010 World Cup qualification beforehand.
Although, qualification hysterics were swiftly dampened at the coveted event itself, as Ireland were sent crashing out in the group stage with three straight defeats to Croatia, eventual champions Spain and Italy.
It was evident to the travelling support that Ireland had simply ran out of steam, having seen qualification as the actual success story and performing stutteringly in the tournament itself, with the side viewing their time in Poland and Ukraine as no more than a summer holiday.
This time out, things are different, with O’Neill and prized assistant Keane forging a solid managerial partnership which has breathed a whole new mentality into the current crop of Irish stars; one which has seen them rise to a more uplifting international status of late.
It’s clear from such a defiant qualification campaign, in which Ireland had to fight through the lottery of the play-offs to reach France, that O’Neill’s men possess the belief and talent to make an impact this time around, rather than simply making up group numbers.
Extra allocated tickets means fans expect
Such a welcomed new outlook, as well as much more expectation from fans, has been echoed by the allocation of extra Euro 2016 tickets for the Republic of Ireland faithful, after successful talks between the FAI and UEFA.
The visiting Irish fans now have a total ticket allocation of 32,502 for their Group E outings against Sweden, Italy and Belgium, adding further expectancy on the national side to deliver a more respectable campaign than that of four years ago.
There’s no doubt that the incredible Irish support will provide the rapturous support and party atmosphere as usual on their French travels, but they will also anticipate strong showings from their country, something they were treated to in qualification more often than not.
Qualifying proved Irish can battle big boys
Along Ireland’s ultimately successful path to France, the green nation endured many pulsating match-ups, bravely battling past seemingly superior opposition and showcasing typical Irish grit to edge close, crucial encounters.
It all began with a narrow away victory over Georgia, with Aiden McGeady netting a last-gasp winner, before a comfortable 7-0 thrashing of minnows Gibraltar, though a hapless defeat to Celtic rivals Scotland downed high spirits after John O’Shea secured a late draw with Germany.
Although, when dreams looked to be potentially dashed at the hands of Gordan Strachan’s Scots, Ireland battled back, with a heroic display in Dublin and a now famous Shane Long strike gifting them an incredible triumph over Joachim Low’s 2014 World Cup winners.
Such a sublime showing catapulted the Irish towards a play-off spot, despite a 2-1 final fixture loss to dangerous outfit Poland, where their solid home and away performances over Bosnia and Herzegovina earned them a deserved position in France.
Are Group E opponents really to be feared?
When the Euro 2016 group stage draw was announced, Ireland were instantly seen as outsiders to progress to the knockout rounds, though they faced a similar situation in qualification and their summer opponents may not be as strong as widely expected.
Italy have faced an obvious decline since their 2006 World Cup, with the latest Azzurri batch simply not as astute as that which prevailed a decade ago on German turf. Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Barzagli are only the remaining lynchpins of that historic win, but are surrounded by indifferent stars, which Ireland are more than capable of dealing with from O’Neill’s solid approach.
Belgium may be ranked as number one nation in the world, though such standings mean very little to those competing, with Ireland placed well below the likes of Hungary, Algeria and Northern Ireland. The Belgians have a long way to go in living up to their current ranking, with Marc Wilmots’ side stacked full of star names, but as recent history suggests, that doesn’t always guarantee success.
Finally, Ireland other’s group challengers are of course Sweden, but the blue and yellow country have been heavily reliant on one man; Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The PSG sharpshooter will see Euro 2016 as a home tournament for himself, having dominated the host nation’s top-flight division but, if the Irish rearguard withstand such an attacking force as they did against Germany, anything is possible.
Of course, as Costa Rica proved in the last World Cup, any nation can overrule outlined forecasts, but Group E is much more open than odds initially suggest, with Belgium 6/5 favourites to finish atop and Italy 13/8 to rise above the rest.
Positions up for grabs at this late stage
Despite there only being several months remaining before O’Neill and his chosen squad depart for France, the Derry-born boss is still keeping his options open for players that can make his final cut, claiming everyone still has a chance.
Many will shrug off such remarks as false hope or a cushioning blow to those who have not featured in qualifying, but such a scenario has occurred before. James McClean had played no part of qualifying for Euro 2012 under Trapattoni, but was still chosen in the final tournament squad, possibly boosting prospects for those recently overlooked.
“There are places there definitely up for grabs,” stated O’Neill, whose team are odds-on 8/13 to exit at the group stage this summer and 2/1 to see their campaign ended in the last 16.
“I don’t want to give caps by a willy-nilly basis..”
“We’ve a number of players I’d like to see – I mentioned the last time that we’ve got these games in March and there’s a couple of players that have been on the periphery of things that have not had a chance and could maybe have thought they should have had a chance – players like Alan Judge, for instance, who is doing very, very well – so I’d like to include them.
“I don’t want to give out caps by a willy-nilly basis but by the same token here, there’s one or two players who are doing very well and might just deserve that chance at international level.”
The Irish squad as a whole performed gallantly throughout qualifying for the summer’s showcase football event, though there were many stand-out characters from those who ply their trade in England.
Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan was a star man for O’Neill, taking that defensive midfield role by storm, while Everton anchorman James McCarthy proved many international critics wrong with his majestic displays.
Southampton striker Long and Potters engine Jonathan Walters were also vital to qualification, while Derby County’s Jeff Hendrick brilliantly repaid faith shown in him by O’Neill. Norwich City duo Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan were other pivotal players who helped the cause.
As club duties continue for the remainder of this season, the Irish contingency have plenty to look to forward to this summer, when O’Neill’s latest crop will look to rewrite the wrongs of previous European nightmares and prove they belong on the continent’s grandest footballing stage.
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