Euro 2016: Italy won’t make things easier for Ireland
Italy manager Antonio Conte stresses his team are determined to record a third victory
Football, like life, has its patterns. Twenty-two summers ago, on that famous, broiling afternoon in Meadowlands when Ireland sent a thrill through the old boroughs by beating Italy in the World Cup, Antonio Conte sat on the Italy bench, watching and thinking.
Tonight, in Flanders country, Conte will be on duty as one of the most feted coaches in these European championships and has promised no easy passage for the Republic of Ireland.
His Italian team may be sitting pretty in group E but if Ireland are to upset his team’s perfect record, he has promised that it will require the herculean effort of that landmark meeting in New Jersey.
“There will be some decisions made which will show just how much this game means to us,” Conte vowed as the teams had their eve-of -match walkabout on the pitch in Lille, which is in substandard condition.
“It is not a useless game by any means. It is a game we want to win. Winning breeds confidence. This is not a game to decided on starters and substitutes, which is a feeling I am picking up on and don’t like at all. I am going to try and pick a balanced side. Otherwise we could have problems.”
Slender bladeRoy Keane
Yesterday afternoon the Corkman sat joking with Seamus Coleman and Martin O’Neill in the dug-out beside the pitch. Ireland trained earlier in Versailles and there was the sense, watching Keane joke and talk animatedly, that the Republic are at least clear in their minds about the task at hand.
They will be facing a changed if not necessarily weaker Italian team.
“We have to get our head on it tonight to prepare for what players they will have on the pitch,” said Coleman.
“We know how big it is to our supporters and we said we want to make things right. We were very disappointed with how we did against Belgium so it is about putting that right and trying not to get sucked in by the hype about it because at the end of the day, it’s a game of football you have to play.”
But it is also a dramatic assignment: traditionally, Ireland teams have been hell-bent on avoiding loss. Having to create a victory – and against the true disciples of defensive conservatism at that – has a faint theme tune of Mission Impossible about it.
So far, Shane Long’s thunderbolt goal against Manuel Neuer in Dublin last autumn has been the ere-defining moment of Martin O’Neill’s time in charge.
O’Neill said that his team would reference that night, rather than the still-vivid folk memory of Giants Stadium in 1994, as a source of inspiration.
“When you say it like that there it just seems to disappear into the ether,” he said with that residual Derry intensity.
“But we beat the world champions on a night that we had to win. And that is an extraordinary result.”
It was that, regardless of how this adventure ends. So far, Ireland’s impact on the general consciousness of France ‘16 has been minimal, a point clumsily enforced by a Danish journalist who put it to O’Neill that the Irish have been hugely celebrated in these championships “not so much because of the squad and the football but because of the fans.”
Undoubtedly, the people have been the stars so far. As they Winnebago-d their way through France Profonde, the Irish masses have made the most of the plonk and the petulant weather but they are still awaiting their iconic ‘I-was-there’ moment. It must come here in Lille or not at all.
It is a strange and pretty town, more Flemish than French in influence and just a short drive from the evocative World War One battlefields, its locals cheerfully self-contained as the green shirts of several generations began to explore its taverns from early Tuesday afternoon.
They will have plenty of time to test the local brews and go through O’Neill’s likely team permutations.
Jon Walters did not train on Tuesday morning and his presence against Italy is considered unlikely. Given what happened against Belgium, O’Neill is hardly likely to go for the same formation. On the Italian side, Conte teased the public that he might make anything between five and nine changes.
Gianluca Buffon, looking luminous and svelte for a man recovering from flu, confirmed with a laugh that he will not play. Other changes may include biting midfielder Stefano Sturaro and Roma’s Stephen El Shaarawy and PSG’s Thiago Motto, who appeared in the dour 1-0, win over Sweden.
Their reserves come from quality vintages. The Italians’ struggle to break the Swedes until the 88th minute reinforces the fact that like their predecessors, their generic make up is based on opportunism rather than extravagance.
Still, O’Neill is mindful of the need for his players to impose themselves.
They will need to be. The Italians have made it clear that they can’t give Ireland a pass here. Somewhere sunnier and drier, an old fox named Giovanni will be watching this meeting of his old teams. Like all of the Azzurri he will be certain of only one outcome. Lille, then, is Ireland’s stage on which to make Italy and Europe notice them for their football rather than for their songs.