Friday 21 October 2016

Belgium were a painful dose of reality

Qualification hopes hang by a thread after Bordeaux mauling

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill on the sideline during the Euro 2016 match against Belgium. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill on the sideline during the Euro 2016 match against Belgium. Photo: Sportsfile
James McCarthy in action against Belgium.

It's always good to get a foreign perspective on Ireland's football team and none better than a German view which materialised shortly after Ireland handed Belgium one of the easiest tournament wins they will ever have.

Just after the final whistle sounded and put Martin O'Neill's team out of its misery in Bordeaux, I bumped into a German journalist who was in Dublin for the world champion's surprise defeat back in October last year. His assessment was savage.

"You have a crap team," he said and there it was in all its frightening honesty.

I didn't even have the heart to take a bite back and point out that this crap team was good enough to beat Germany on that day and steal a point a year earlier in Munich.

Mainly because he was right. Ireland were awful against Belgium and there was no disguising that fact.

The mild euphoria after Sweden allowed us all to suspend disbelief and ignore the harsh reality of our place in Euro 2016.


A few moments later, another acquaintance pondered the clear absence of conspicuous talent in the Irish team and reeled off names like Brady, McGrath, Whelan, Roy Keane and Ray Houghton.

"Where are the players like these men," he mused and he was from Italy.

It's saying something that outside observers have such strong negative views on Ireland. They don't have any emotional baggage to filter their opinions and reached some cutting conclusions.

Their observations feed into a debate which must take place when the dust has settled on this tournament and central to the discussion should be the FAI's elite talent programme, which shows no sings of developing the kind of talent which once graced Ireland squads.

The future of our international team is to be left in the hands of League of Ireland clubs, and many of them can barely afford to fund their senior teams.

The next step in the grand plan is to hand Under 13s over to clubs without the means to look after the other age-groups which the FAI strategy has handed them.

The time for a broad discussion will come in the months after Euro 2016 but for now, the priority is Italy and a make -or- break game on Wednesday evening.

After Belgium, it is difficult to manufacture any confidence about the game.

O'Neill was clearly taken aback by Bordeaux and didn't spare his players afterwards, which in itself was surprising and redolent of Giovanni Trapattoni's detached view after each depressing fixture in the Euro 2012 finals in Poland.

"They pushed us back but my disappointment came from the fact that against Sweden we played exceptionally well with the ball, but today when we had it we looked too nervous and gave it away too readily," he said.

Surely it was his decision to tell Darren Radolph to pump the ball long, which almost guaranteed Belgium as much possession as they wanted?

Shane Long was isolated up front, visibly detached from his midfield and had to deal with the physical presence of Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertongen alone.

The fact that the team survived to half-time without conceding was about luck as much as anything else.

Neither Ciaran Clark not John O'Shea inspired confidence and in front of them, James McCarthy, after a bright start, was clearly struggling.

It is wrong, however, that McCarthy should bear the brunt of the criticism. He is clearly not fit and it would not be a surprise if O'Neill chooses to leave him on the bench against Italy.

The impact of an injury-ravaged season and indeed, the muscle injury which threatened his participation in the tournament during the preparatory weeks in Dublin and Fota Island has taken a major toll on his body.

He looked flogged when he was withdrawn against Sweden with five minutes left on the clock and managed an hour before O'Neill called him ashore against Belgium.

It is hard to see, against that background, how he will be fit to give a fully committed 90 minutes against Italy.

The same can be said of Clark. O'Neill trusted him after 90 minutes against Sweden which was, to say the least, a mixed bag.

Unfortunately, it probably doesn't matter whether O'Neill makes changes or not.

The idea that Italy will be less of a challenge than they were for Belgium and Sweden is straw-clutching.

Italy are already eyeing up the possibility of another tournament win and whoever plays for them in Lille will want to be a part of it.

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