Ireland v Belgium: O’Neill’s men arrive at moment of truth
Rumours of Belgian discord will bolster Irish belief ahead of crucial clash
Belgium v Republic of Ireland
It is easy to forget after a week around the Ireland set-up that the players ultimately let go of a lead in St Denis. The mood music about the place since the 1-1 draw with Sweden has been such that the intended message could only really be clearer if Beach Boys classics had been played during training. All the better then that the Belgians seem to have been battling a bit of discord in their own camp.
Martin O’Neill played down the significance of the reports that his opposite number, Marc Wilmots, might be at odds with his players but then he also claimed not to have thought about the group permutations in the wake of Italy’s win over Sweden and privately he is bound to find the idea of Belgium’s big stars complaining quietly encouraging.
Wilmots is certainly weighing up significant changes to the team that lost in Lyon; “between two and 10,” he joked at his press conference, before suggesting that Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper who had criticised the tactics immediately after the game to the media, might be the only survivor.
O’Neill’s deliberations are likely to be far more limited in scope. With Jon Walters out, he must decide whether to simply replace the Stoke City striker with James McClean from the outset or bring back Stephen Ward and shift Robbie Brady forward into midfield.
The latter, combined with a switch to 4-2-3-1, would seem to make some sense against a side that appears to be intent on exploiting the lack of width in some Irish team selections and it would scarcely be surprise after a qualifying campaign in which the Burnley left back started seven of the 12 games, including both Germany games and the play-off in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
About as close as O’Neill came to showing any of his hand for the game was when he expressed the hope that: “when we have the ball . . . we play with as much confidence as we did the other night.”
The likelihood is, of course, that Ireland will not have the ball nearly so much as they did on Monday and having severely limited Sweden’s scoring opportunities in a game in which Erik Hamren’s side had slightly more of it, the challenge here will be to contain a more varied attacking threat, posed by a string of highly talented players. Having beaten Germany with barely a third of the possession they may not find the idea completely daunting although it is bound to involve a tough afternoon’s work.
“We have to be mentally tuned in,” said O’Neill. “There are other sides at this tournament who possibly have a lot of talent at their disposal and can maybe afford to be not quite so tuned in; we can’t.” Whether, with that in mind, Ciaran Clark pays with his place for his failure to deal more effectively with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tricky cross on Monday remains to be seen but there is no particular reason to believe that either of the manager’s other options would have done any better in the circumstances.
John O’Shea’s appearance at the pre-match press conference, in any case, suggests he will captain the side again with Robbie Keane, having lost his place in the starting line-up, perhaps reluctant to settle for being that sort of frontman.
For their part, the Belgians will certainly see themselves testing Darron Randolph a little more than the Swedes managed to but quite how they set out to do it will not become clear until an hour or so before kick-off.
Despite some spirited feedback from his players, Wilmots insisted yesterday that it is he who calls the shots and the sense is that he will look to attack down the wings with Thomas Meunier and Dries Mertens the most likely to replace Laurent Ciman and Marouane Fellaini as the manager tinkers with both his side and system.
Perhaps the biggest call is up front, though, with Romelu Lukaku’s strong pre-tournament form nowhere to be seen against the Italians prompting Wilmots to weigh up replacing the Everton striker with Christian Benteke or Marseille’s Michy Batshuayi.
Abandoning Lukaku after one game might be taken for panic, but the stakes here are high. And that, as it happens, is believed to be precisely the thinking that is keeping the coach’s players in line. Most accept that Wilmots has done well to get them here, even if they disagree with him over the general style of football they play and particular aspects of his approach, not least an inclination, widely seen as dated, towards man-marking.
Courtois, in any case, was wheeled into yesterday’s press conference to suggest that his criticisms of the tactics had both been said in the heat of the moment and then misinterpreted. Wilmots sat quietly by as the goalkeeper spoke but did little, with his defensive manner as things opened up afterwards, to sound as though things are entirely right in the camp.
That will certainly add to the sense of hope in the Ireland dressing room before the game. It will not, however, make it much easier to cope with the skills of, most obviously, Eden Hazard and, if he plays, which is not entirely certain after Monday, Kevin De Bruyne.
Ireland have shown, though, that they are capable these days of pulling very big performances out of the bag on occasion and one here could be enough at this stage to secure a place in this tournament’s last 16.
If not, there is still an Italian side that has already made sure of its place in the next round, to come. Their win over Sweden means that they will have nothing in particular to play for next week in Lille where players like Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and their goalscorer in Toulouse, Eder, might all be rested to avoid the danger of them picking up second yellow’s before the knockout stage.
O’Neill’s men, who may be slightly be slightly wary of a referee who sent Keith Andrews off against Italy at the last European Championships and did the same to John O’Shea against Poland in the final qualifying group game, will not be nearly so carefree in their final group game but they have a real chance here to ensure they are completely up against it either.
Republic of Ireland (Possible): Randolph; Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Ward; Whelan, McCarthy; Hendrick, Hoolahan, Brady; Long.
Belgium (Possible): Courtois; Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Nainggolan, Witzel; Mertens, De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).