Feelings will have been mixed in the Ireland camp after the 1-1 draw with Sweden on Monday. Martin O’Neill’s men were desperately unlucky not to have notched more than one goal given the chances they had.
However, great heart and encouragement can be taken from the performance. With one point on the board and Belgium to play on Saturday, what do Ireland need to do to build on that good performance?
We went into this tournament thinking that Belgium with their stellar line-up of individuals were the team to fear most. In light of their performance against Italy, those individual are just that. There was no cohesion in attack, they relied upon Marouane Felliani to build attacks. Trying to transition the ball quickly through Felliani is like trying to slice a loaf of multi-seed bread with a soup spoon, you might get there eventually but it’s bound to be a mess.
There’s been unrest in the Belgian press over the managerial capabilities of Marc Wilmots. Given the players at his disposal and the performance produced the other night, you’d have to say it isn’t without foundation. If he can’t put it right by Saturday and his team play with the same lack of desire and invention there’s no reason we can’t build on the performance against Sweden and topple them.
Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are exceptionally talented players but their temperaments and dedication to the cause are questionable. It showed against the Italians. If we can keep them quiet for the first 15 or 20 minutes they have a tendency to lose interest and go missing. Frustrating them will be key, it will be a big task for our full backs. Seamus Coleman looked vulnerable against Sweden and will need more help on Saturday. The same goes for Robbie Brady, he’s become one of our best players but he isn’t a natural defender and will need cover from our sitting midfielders.
We will need all our top players bang on form. It looks like Johnny Walters will miss the game with a flare up of the Achilles problem he had in Monday’s game, he will be a big miss for us. There are far more positives to take than negatives though. The performances of Wes Hoolahan and in particular Jeff Hendrick were major plus points. If they can produce similar quality against Belgium it will be a great building block for us.
James McCarthy needs to have a big game, not just for us but for himself too. He has undoubted talent but he has rarely shown it in a green jersey. He got a lot of stick for his performance against Sweden and rightly so, he was ineffective and large spells of the game passed him by.
Shane Long had a decent game against Sweden without showing what he has become known for. He held the ball up well and brought other players into play but he didn’t get the chance to really run at the Swedish defence. They sat quite deep so he couldn’t run in behind either. It’s the midfield’s responsibility to feed Long with the service to allow him to terrorise the Belgian defenders, hopefully they’ll facilitate him further by playing a high line.
The freshness of the players will be key, we can’t afford any tired legs and I doubt there will be. O’Neill has handled this situation very well, full on training sessions have been scrapped for light training and warm downs. Tempo is vital to our success and the manager will want to minimise the risk of any of his players burning out after what has already been a long season for many.
The opening round of games revealed a lot.Belgium proved to be far less than the sum of their parts and we produced our best display in years. There may be a perfect storm brewing.