This tournament has all the dangerous hallmarks of the disastrous Euro 2012 for the republic of Ireland. And nobody involved with the current set-up will want a repeat. Submerged in a group which contains European heavyweights Belgium, Italy and Sweden the aim here is to better their abysmal collection of zero points, one goal and nine conceded four years ago when they were paired with Spain, Croatia and the Azzurri.
Their fans were undoubtedly the highlight of tournament washing Poland and Ukraine in a sea of green because on the pitch they were meek and completely unambitious. That shouldn’t be the case this time around though. While again it is difficult to see them make it through the toughest group in the competition, they will no doubt be one of the hardest working sides, a sentiment typified by their whirlwind striker Shane Long.
They got through the play-off with Bosnia & Herzegovina without him but having the Southampton frontman back in the fold is a huge positive. He may not have the standout quality of record goalscorer Robbie Keane, but his relentless work ethic and ability to hold the ball up is crucial for a side which will find itself pinned back defensively.
Behind Long in a likely 4-5-1 formation, they have a solid base as James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan will run themselves into the ground to protect the defence, a necessity because they do cede possession to the opposition.
While the Irish headed into Euro 2012 without any real cohesion, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane – the self proclaimed good-cop, bad-cop pairing – have created an entirely different atmosphere this time around. An early end seems inevitable again but they do have the ability to produce the unexpected – just ask world champions Germany who they drew with and beat during qualification.
Much like their fanbase, this side works together as a unit. They defend resolutely and are tough to break down but that doesn’t mean the boys in green are as negative as they were under previous boss Giovanni Trapattoni. They do lean on the creative side, too, through Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan. And of course, they are rich with experience.
They simply don’t have any genuine stand-out names. Yes, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Shane Long are talented players but they just miss that sprinkling of star quality. The heart of the defence is a concern as well with the pairing of John O’Shea and Richard Keogh hardly screaming pace.
STAR MAN – SEAMUS COLEMAN
You have to consider Everton’s season as a write off with the full-back hardly enjoying his best campaign to date. However, for Ireland he remains an outstanding attacking rightback. Technically, there’s few who match him in this Ireland squad and his contribution going forward with lung-bursting runs are crucial on the counter. He didn’t even make Giovanni Trapattoni’s cut for Euro 2012 and will no doubt be out to make his mark at this year’s tournament.
Not finishing bottom will be seen as a success after Euro 2012’s failings. It’s a tough ask to progress against Belgium, Italy and Sweden. Clinching third will very much depend on the opener with Sweden.
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