Rival managers are polite but Ireland not rated as major threat
Belgians confident that they and the Italians will progress from Euro 2016 ‘group of death’
Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Italy coach Antonio Conte knows his “spark of creativity” will be a threat. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images
They may have beaten Germany on the way to qualifying, but the Republic of Ireland’s record of just one win in 20 previous competitive games against Euro 2016 Group E rivals seemed to do more to inform Belgian, Italian and Swedish reaction to Saturday evening’s draw in Paris.
You might expect the Swedes to be most wary of a side whose biggest win in qualifying comfortably eclipsed anything they managed on the way to France.
However, FC Copenhagen defender Per Nilsson dismissed Martin O’Neill’s side with the observation that “Ireland we should beat”, before emphasising how he and his team-mates would have to be at their best if they were going to make headway against the teams he saw as the group’s big boys.
Belgian FA president François De Keersmaecker said that and much more with when he told the media after the draw: “I think that first game against Italy will direct the show.” He then went on to say: “I think the way is open to cup.”
Surprisingly, his manager, Marc Wilmots, was no more circumspect, reacting to a question about whether this might be the tournament’s “group of death”, with the observation that: “It’s a tough draw: nothing more. The Republic of Ireland we should be able to beat; Sweden we can also beat. The first match against Italy will be the toughest. [Italy coach Antonio Conte] will not be happy to have drawn us either.”
Spark of creativity
“Finally Ireland, like all Anglo-Saxon sides, play a physical 4-4-2 with great intensity. But nobody likes to face Italy, we are an organised team with ideas who can improve,” he said.
Conte’s Swedish counterpart, Erik Hamrén, also gave polite nods in every direction and accepted, it seemed, without too much rancour the right of the Belgians and Italians to regard themselves as favourites to progress although he also recommended caution.
“If you see it on the base of the ranking, then of course we fight for third place but you have to play on it,” said the 58-year-old.
“I’m sure Ireland and we want to be number one but you have to see that Belgium and Italy are the favourites and of course Ireland and we are the underdogs. The first game against Ireland is going to be really, really interesting because the winner of that game has a really good chance to go further.”