Rep of Ireland v Italy: Martin O’Neill to shuffle playing deck

Ireland manager expected to make at least four changes for do-or-die clash with Italy

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill gathers his thoughts during the stadium walk in Lille. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill gathers his thoughts during the stadium walk in Lille. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

Where Giovanni Trapattoni stuck with his established players for that final game because of what they might say about him abroad, current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has no such concerns and appears to be falling back on the survival instincts that served him and his team so well at the critical moment of the qualifying campaign.

The manager looks to be lining up at least four changes to the side that was beaten in Bordeaux by Belgium for tonight’s game against Italy in Lille. And there is the potential for more.

The precise extent of the overhaul is impossible to call but Ciaran Clark and James McCarthy are expected to pay the price for their disappointing form, while Stephen Ward is likely to make way for Robbie Brady at left back, with either Daryl Murphy or James McClean filling the gap he leaves in midfield.

Captaincy

Seamus Coleman’s appearance at the pre-match press conference was taken as evidence that John O’Shea too will be one of those culled, with the Everton right back set to take over the captaincy.

Wes Hoolahan is another one under threat and while it is hard to see how his creativity could be replaced, almost anything is possible, it seems, as the manager looks to pull something remarkable out of the bag again.

Change on the scale envisaged would certainly be the sort of boldness on the manager’s part that Roy Keane suggested on Monday he hoped to see from the players.

Whether it delivers the desired impact against Italy – who may make up to nine changes of their own but will still contain a string of Italian title winners as well some young players of immense promise – is quite another thing. But if it does, it will take its place right up there in any list of the team’s most memorable successes.

Second Captains

O’Neill and the players have some form on that front, as they like to remind us, and inevitably the events of October 8th got a mentioned as he contemplated this game.

“We can look back to that night in October time when we beat the world champions on a night that we had to win and that’s extraordinary,” he said in response to a question about the inspiration that might be found in Ireland’s defeat of the Italians in 1994. “It was not a normal side but one that had gone to Brazil 18 months earlier and won the World Cup.

“So we don’t have to go back to ’94, we can draw on that recent one because this is the set of players that did it. The inspiration will come from that night and the night against Bosnia.”

More weight

O’Neill said that his side needs to show more energy than in Bordeaux and to provide more support to the team’s front man (or men), and while McClean or Murphy will most likely lend a little more weight to the attack, clearly the real question is how effectively the team as a whole wins, retains and uses the ball.

Those, as Keane pretty much admitted, are not issues that can necessarily be resolved in 48 hours.

The hope, the manager says, is that some of the momentum of the Sweden game will be recovered, but it will take rather more than that given that they will be up against better players no matter to whom Antonio Conte decides to give a night off.

The Italian coach insists he is not taking the game remotely lightly and neither will players who feel they might somehow play their way into his plans for the bigger games to come.

Conclusion

Still, it seems somehow hard to avoid the conclusion that it is better that they do not need to win this game too.

In Poland, they achieved the required victory without any hugely obvious difficulty and the manner in which the beat Belgium suggests that they might not struggle greatly now in similar circumstances.

For the Irish the transformation from that difficult and ultimately dispiriting night four years ago must be complete. They have only reached this point of the tournament because of its expansion from 16 to 24 teams and if the old rules applied at the finals they would be all but out now.

But they don’t and having saved themselves once in rather spectacular fashion, it might – just might – be that O’Neill and his players can do it again.

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