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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Sweden now the focus for subdued O'Neill

Euro 2016 opponents will sorely test Ireland's limits

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane watch the draw in Paris
Draw

Ireland beat Germany back in October. Cling to that cockle-warming fact in the dark, cold days of winter when the mind dwells on France and contemplates a veritable Mount Blanc of a job in front of us.

With a bottle of vin rouge at hand, take the glass half full view and imagine a gritty win over Sweden and an entente cordial with Italy in Lille.

Belgium? A bit flaky but the pick of the group and what better time to pay them back for some stomach churning defeats back through the ages.

Even the glass half empty is not bad. It is a tough group but this won't be Euro 2012. Ireland can never be so spiritless at a major tournament final again.

And after a draw which followed in a grand tradition of kicking us in the eye, there is one other crumb of comfort. Ireland's final game is on the final day of the first phase and when Ireland take on Italy in Lille, Martin O'Neill will have a complete picture of every other group in front of him.

It's a small thing but could be relevant in terms of the third-place qualifiers for the Round of Sixteen.

It is always nice to get carried away in the heady atmosphere of a draw although O'Neill himself was notably subdued.

"The group is tough but I think that when I get over this initial moroseness, I think that I will be absolutely fine," he said.

"Honestly, I must have stopped going to mass! I haven't!"

"But Roy was sitting beside me and we thought that there was a possibility that the Portugal group beside us that maybe...when we were down to fifty-fifty, you were still looking at sides that, well, you might have chosen ."

Pessimistic

So, pessimistic might be the word to use to describe his initial reaction if understandably so. It IS a tough group and this was a good time pour a bucket of cold water on expectations.

Then again, who knows better the long acres of barren ground O'Neill and his players covered before they found a way to play and a belief in themselves? Maybe he was right to be morose.

But when Giovanni Trapattoni named the group which would travel to Montecatini for the pre-Poland training camp, there was never the feeling that this was a group of players on an upward curve.

If anything the opposite and apprehension was the order of the day. That will not be the case this time. Most of that is down to the German win.

It gave Ireland wings and turned a hopeless qualifying situation around. It can be just as big an inspiration in six months time.

"It was a long route but we got there and let us genuinely, let us genuinely go for it," said O'Neill after the draw.

"At least we know who we're playing and in this day and age there's no reason why we can't just go and see our own players and see how they're going but watch opposition players at club level to give you a better idea.

"We'll get hundreds of DVDs, we'll be well equipped and there'll be no reason whatsoever for us to not be as prepared as any side can possibly be for the three games. We know exactly who we're playing."

O'Neill watched events in Brazil 2014 and fully understands the need to start well against Sweden. The fact that one defeat could end Ireland's tournament has not been lost on him.

"I think the first game becomes very important as it would be anyway. There seemed to be a feeling out in Rio at the time that teams wanted to try and win the first game rather than being more cagey," he said.

"For us, the first game is very, very important. I think that if you were to ask an awful lot of managers, I think that when the first game is done and dusted they would rather be still in it than completely out of it. So I take that point," he said.

"But the games we have are tough so starting to plan getting points here and there is, I think, a total waste of time. Let's just go for it, genuinely take the games as they appear, Sweden first and throw everything into it."

Sweden, of course, means Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a strong Euro finals tradition but O'Neill need only look back a few years to Ireland's two World Cup qualifiers against the Scandinavians for evidence that they can be beaten.

Head-to-head history usually has no real meaning in practical terms but these games are relatively recent and the Swedish team hasn't changed a great deal since.

"If you think about the teams we've played in the past, in the group stages, Lewandowski was a major player and whatever sort of plans you make, I think great players can still manoeuvre themselves in ways to get out of position," said O'Neill.

"Lewandowski ended up scoring the headed goal against us which was very, very important," he added.

In other words, there is no point in getting hung up on one player when there will be ten more in yellows shirts on the pitch.

"I saw bits of their play-off games with Denmark. Ibrahimovic is obviously a big player for them, he's their talisman. But I don't think that Sweden will always go direct, I do think they try to build it up a little bit," said the Ireland boss.

This is the fine detail which he must address in the coming months and while he does, the rest of us can dream.

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