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Wednesday 7 December 2016

It's hard to see way forward

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the training session at Stade de Montbauron, Versailles. Photo: PA Wire
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill during the training session at Stade de Montbauron, Versailles. Photo: PA Wire

Euro 2016: Ireland v Italy (Live RTE2 8.0)

It's hard to see how this can happen, hard to see how Ireland can recover from the punch in the stomach Belgium delivered and find the win they need against Italy.

It's about class or more accurately, the absence of class in Martin O'Neill's squad. Italy never lack that particular quality and especially when they have a nose for a final.

Antonio Conte could make as many as nine changes but the real question about tonight's game in the Stade Phillipe Mauroy is whether O'Neill can somehow do something to correct the mistakes which were so evident against Belgium in Bordeaux.

If he doesn't and if the players do not respond to his management, it won't matter how many changes the Italian boss makes, Ireland will be going home tomorrow.

Basic defending should be hard-wired in every professional football but there were moments in the game against Belgium when you had to wonder where some of our players learned the art and who taught them.

From James McCarthy back to Ciaran Clark, errors were made which would make a callow schoolboy blush and the only way to adequately explain the huge drop in standards from the opener against Sweden is fear; fear of losing, fear of better players and fear of the occasion.

O'Neill spoke for the first time since the final whistle last Saturday in the set-piece press pre-match conference yesterday and he wasn't at his best.

He looked detached, worried and once again, the feeling that he has become disconnected from this whole endeavour was hard to avoid.

Of course, he is not detached. He's the Ireland manager and it would very unfair to say that the image he projects is a reflection of his interest.

But a simple comparison with Roy Keane's warrior words and general projection of an upbeat coach ready to lead his troops delivered a few days ago, is stark.

And when Antonio Conte sat on the stage, his trenchant defence of Ireland's ability was the kind of rallying call O'Neill should have been delivering.

Asked about his memories of US94 which he viewed from the Italian bench, he sounded a big warning for giddy Italian journalists whose first question was to ask him can Italy win the tournament.

"From what I remember, it was a tough game. We lost it and it put us into knock-out situation. That was a very good Ireland side, full of determination, desire and very competitive.

"Don't forget this Ireland beat Germany 1-0 and you don't beat Germany by the grace of God or because you have a lucky day," claimed Conte.

"They have significant ability and everyone helps each other. This is life or death for them and we don't want to get it wrong."

O'Neill tried to raise a bit of gallop with his response to some very friendly questions but he only really built up a head of steam when he spoke about that win over Germany nine months ago

"That was an extraordinary night, extraordinary. Beating the World Championship when we had to in order to go forward in the competition, beating the world champions, just saying it sounds special.

Animated

"The lads must take that performance, and the two against Bosnia in the play-offs, into this match. They can do it," he said.

He was at his most animated when he was engaged with FAI logistics man Peter Sherrard, apparently discussing his preference for the roof the stadium to be closed tonight if there is any further rainfall.

That can almost be taken for granted in this peculiar start to the French summer. Usually they are bathed in sunshine at this time of year but for a month they have been splashing around in a deluge.

The FAI have made the request but you can only wish them luck with that.

UEFA is more than ever, an unbending giant with some extraordinarily complicated processes which seem impenetrable to the outside world and rarely coincide with even the most basic practicalities.

Perhaps if O'Neill submitted a request a year in advance UEFA's labyrinthine bureaucracy might have time to grind into action and grant his request.

The Ireland players didn't even bother to make the trip from their Lille hotel to the stadium because of the damaged pitch and with rain in the air and more forecast, the surface could well be reduced to cabbage patch by kick-off tim e. It's already in a woeful state and according to Conte "not suitable".

O'Neill hinted that he may make some changes to his system but he won't make many in terms of personnel.

"While some things that you haven't practiced as much as others and players are pretty adept these days at club level - talking about certain systems that they would play and a lot of them come to international games playing totally different systems with their clubs. So they're pretty well used to systems," he said.

Clark will probably drop back to the bench and give Richard Keogh back the place he lost for the tournament opener in the Stade de France.

Wes Hoolahan, just a shadow in Bordeaux of the wonderfully dynamic and will o' the wisp creature he was against Sweden could also suffer. Stephen Quinn is the man most likely to replace him but a case can also be made for Robbie Brady who ended up in central midfield against Belgium in Bordeaux

O'Neill's biggest problem next to Ireland's defensive collapse against Belgium was the huge gap between Shane Long and the rest of his team.

He must find a way to end Long's isolation up front or Ireland have absolutely no chance in this game.

There is a solution of sorts available to him. Play his best striker wide on the right, where Jon Walters would have been if he was fit, and Daryl Murphy in the top slot.

There has been some debate about the possibility he might drop James McCarthy but this is unlikely. O'Neill would see that as a betrayal of a player who he believes was a key man in the qualifying series.

All of this is almost a straw-clutching exercise and each time you weigh up O'Neill's options, you bang up against Conte's clear assertion that this is not dead game for Italy.

He clearly meant every word he said and that is very worrying.

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