Monday 24 October 2016

Relaxed squad ready for a battle

Confident players in top form before another massive test

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during squad training at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux. Pic: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during squad training at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux. Pic: Sportsfile

Smiles, grins and chuckles. Even the odd guffaw. It was hard to believe that Martin O'Neill and his players were just 24 hours away from another huge Euro 2016 battle.

Out on the pitch, or at least in a restricted corner of the playing surface because of the ridiculous amounts of rain that have been falling on Bordeaux in the last few days, the players laughed and joked, totally at ease now with the tournament and their place in it.

The weather is having an impact and with two games already played at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, the pitch is looking a bit ragged.

So too is the surface at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille but as O'Neill said when he was asked about the possible impact of a soft and easily disturbed turf, that's a worry for another day.

Right now, nobody in the Ireland camp looks worried at all. In fact, entirely the opposite.

Usually by this time before a game, O'Neill has removed himself to the place in his mind where he refines his thoughts and can appear withdrawn, even morose, but the performance in the Stade de France against Sweden clarified so many things.

Perhaps that's why he is looking relaxed and cheerful, He even threw in some decent jokes this time, despite his promise to steer clear of potential verbal landmines before dealing with matters at hand.


Asked about Roy Keane and their roles as "bad cop and bad, bad cop" in the Ireland management team, he risked the full searchlight of the Corkman's darker side when he named him "The Werewolf of Manchester" as an explanation for his growing beard.

"It's getting longer alright," he laughed. "He's fine, we locked him up 25 minutes ago we're not going to allow him to come. He's caged as his beard gets longer and longer."

As expected, Jon Walters won't play against Belgium and likely as not, O'Neill will make just one change - James McClean for the unfortunate Stoke striker.

So O'Neill really only has to consider a shift in emphasis from the front foot approach which delivered the best 60 minutes of his time in charge against Sweden to something slightly more restrained against the twinkling feet of Hazard and the raw power of Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin de Bruyne.

O'Neill is promising the same but did suggest that there may be a shift in emphasis.

"In terms of approach, the game, hopefully it will be the same type of approach. The strategy might be a little but different. Belgium are a totally different side than Sweden and we have to look at the strengths they have," said the Ireland manager.

"When we have possession, I want to see us play with the same sort of confidence. That was the most pleasing thing for me from the Sweden game. We created chances because we had assurance on the ball and we would like to do the same again."

"They are very talented, no question and they are all playing big club football. They would look at us and feel that some of our players not playing at the level they play each week. They may feel they have an advantage in that but it doesn't always work out that way," claimed O'Neill.

O'Neill caught some of the Italian's last gasp win over Sweden, a result which helped Ireland. Even better was the clutch of yellow cards which Antonio Conte's squad are now labouring under, most notably the one Gianluigi Buffon was shown near the final whistle for time wasting.

"A late goal by Italy has given them six on the board. So I'm not exactly sure what that means in terms of permutations. Time enough for this after this evening evening

"What we have to look at it is ourselves versus Belgium. Regardless, we still have to play Italy and it looks as if we have to win a game," he said.

Indeed it does. Sweden's defeat means that their only chance of getting out of this group is to beat Belgium in the last game so whatever small crumbs of advantage were available from this game definitely fell for O'Neill.

But he knows that somewhere between lunchtime today and late evening on Wednesday, Ireland must win to move on.

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