Martin O’Neill will be looking for his side to give a better account of themselves in France than they did under Giovanni Trappatoni at Euro 2012. However a formidable task awaits the Boys In Green.
Their reward for a relatively comfortable playoff win over Bosnia and Herzegovina to qualify for Euro 2016 was a draw into one of the toughest groups in the competition. Quickly rechristened ‘The Group of Death’, Ireland face Belgium, Italy, and Sweden in Group E.
There is a sense that with the unpredictable Roy Keane on the coaching staff this time around, there will be more focus on what happens on the pitch to keep him smiling. Hitting teams on the break worked for Leicester City in the Premier League this season – who’s to say that O’Neill‘s pragmatic, tactical approach of ceding possession against more technically gifted sides and utilizing the pace of striker Shane Long won’t pay off too?
Given the season that Ciaran Clark has had with Aston Villa, Richard Keogh may make claims for starting alongside captain John O’Shea in the centre of defence. The pace and technical ability of Everton right-back Seamus Coleman make him a valuable member of the squad, and Stephen Ward of newlypromoted Premier League side Burnley completes an experienced back four.
Choosing the goalkeeper is a tough call for Martin O’Neill. Darren Randolph of West Ham was a revelation during qualification when he stepped for the injured Shay Given. While solid and reliable, he does not have the experienced of the now-available Irish veteran Shay Given – although doubts remain over Given’s fitness. It is a good selection problem to have for O’Neill, but a difficult one to solve.
The Irish midfield are best described as hard-working, steely, and determined, but they are capable of the odd flash of brilliance. The latter was evident during the qualifying campaign, with Sheffield Wednesday loanee Aiden McGeady scoring wonderful goals that turned out to be crucial, including a late winner against Georgia in the first game of qualification. Robbie Brady is a good option on the wing – his left-footed crosses are consistently accurate and he pops up with a goal or two.
Despite the availability of decent wingers, a 4-4-2 system tends to blunt Ireland as an attacking force, and the lack of attacking intent shown at Euro 2012 was a big reason for previous manager Trapattoni‘s departure. In a recent friendly with Slovakia, O’Neill experimented with a diamond formation. It was one of the team’s most impressive attacking displays in a long time, but the defensive vulnerabilities caused by a lack of protection on the wings means it might be reserved for must-win games.
The most likely scenario is that Ireland will start the tournament with a 4-2-3-1 formation. This would allow Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy to play the holding role ensuring Ireland do not get exposed to counter attacks too much. Wes Hoolahan would act as playmaker, probably behind Shane Long, who scored a famous goal in Ireland’s 1-0 victory over world champions Germany back in October. And will there be an international swansong to remember for record goalscorer Robbie Keane?
That win against Germany showed that Ireland can mix it with the big boys. Despite their tricky group, sometimes the underdog tag works in your favour – just look at Costa Rica at the Brazil 2014 World Cup, who topped a group they were favourites to finish last in. And as Leicester City taught us, anything is possible in what has been the barmiest of football years.