When it comes to the draw, there has been no such thing as the luck of the Irish in recent times.
First, there was the Republic of Ireland’s ill-fated appearance at Euro 2012, which ended in three defeats from three, against Croatia, Spain and Italy. The final of Euro 2012? Spain against Italy.
Then came an unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign, when they finished fourth in their group behind Germany, Sweden and Austria. Germany went on to be world champions, and all three teams will compete in France this summer.
Perhaps they would be given an easier draw in Euro 2016 qualification? Nope – Germany again, and Poland, and Scotland. Theirs was pretty much the toughest of all nine groups, with even Georgia refusing to be whipping boys. The Irish did at least make it through on this occasion, even if they needed a play-off to book their place.
After all of that, they deserved a bit of fortune. Instead they’ve landed Italy again, as well as Belgium – ranked the best team in the world by FIFA at the time of the draw – and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden. Euro 2016’s new format means that a third-place finish could be enough to reach the second round, but achieving even that will be a difficult task.
The opening game against Sweden at the Stade de France is crucial. The Boys in Green will need to continue the momentum gathered during the second half of their qualification campaign. Things didn’t look good after they lost in Scotland, but they hit back to beat Germany before overcoming fog, lava flows and plagues of locusts – well, definitely fog – to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina in the play-offs.
The Irish team is much changed from four years ago: only John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan look likely to retain their starting spots from Euro 2012. They’ll be hoping that this side can fare rather better.
Lesson from qualifying
On their day, the Irish can compete with anyone. They may have lost in Scotland and Poland, both times by a single goal, but they took four points from world champions Germany, drawing 1-1 in Gelsenkirchen and winning 1-0 in Dublin.
Wes Hoolahan is in the form of his life but Ireland aren’t reliant on one or two key players, so Martin O’Neill can plug any gaps caused by injury or suspension. Crucial late goals, from a last-gasp winner in Georgia to stoppage-time equalisers against Germany and Poland, have showed their spirit.
This is a squad lacking star quality. The 143-cap wonder that is Robbie Keane has finally become a peripheral figure at the age of 35, and none of the squad currently play for the Premier League’s big boys. They’re also short of a top-level goalkeeper.
Most likely to...
Fall out before the tournament has even started. All right, probably not – but this is assistant manager Roy Keane’s first finals since his infamous walk-out before the 2002 World Cup, when he decided to return home to spend more time with Triggs. Plus, the team’s high-performance director is a Ruud Dokter (genuinely his name). Sounds like potential for trouble…
Least likely to…
To be short of support. The Irish fans, who see themselves as the sides’ 12th man, are renowned for travelling in huge numbers to major tournaments – there were 275,000 applications for only 26,000 tickets available this summer – and they’ve been known to like a drop or two as well. France had better be well stocked up on Guinness.
What they hope will happen
An improvement on their performance at Euro 2012, possibly allowing them to sneak into the second round with a little luck.
What will happen
A battle for third spot with Sweden, likely to be decided by their opening fixture. The tense final match against Italy will end the group stage, so they’ll know exactly what result will bring a ‘best’ third-place finish.
Key player - Shane Long
At 29, Long is one of this team’s most experienced performers, and it was he who scored the winner against Germany in October. Following in the footsteps of the fading Robbie Keane – the Irish captain and all-time most capped player and top scorer – isn’t easy, but both his work-rate and eye for a goal could be crucial.
Manager - Martin O’Neill
It would have been fascinating to know the thoughts of O’Neill when his native Northern Ireland qualified, at a time when the Republic looked like missing out. Having negotiated the play-offs, his experience is key.
Q&A - Richard Keogh
Which were the most special moments in qualifying?
When the final whistle went against Bosnia & Herzegovina, it was the best feeling you could have. Everyone wrote us off, but beating Germany was a big turning point and an amazing night that will live with me forever. I was up against Andre Schurrle and Marco Reus – Mesut Özil was playing, too – and to keep a clean sheet against the world champions gives you a boost that you can play against the best players in the world. We proved that on our day we can beat anyone.
How did you react when you were drawn into a group with Italy, Belgium and Sweden?
I thought: ‘Woah, OK…’ It was kind of typical: we get tough groups quite a lot. However, asa professional, you want to play against the best. If selected, I’m looking forward to playing against Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He’s a world-class player and it will be a great challenge to test myself against someone like that. We want to get out of the group. It’s a tough group but that’s definitely possible.
You’ve played more regularly for the Republic of Ireland since the heartbreak of your last-minute play-off final mistake for Derby in 2014. Did that drive you on?
Yes, I think so. Whenever you experience a low like that – a cruel, cruel way to end a season, on a personal level especially – it does drive you to kick on, and I think I’ve done that. The only way you get better is by learning from mistakes. I feel I came out of it stronger mentally and became a better player for it. Martin O’Neill has shown a lot of confidence in me and the more caps I’ve won, the more comfortable I have felt at international level. I’ve been lucky enough to play in a lot of the big games and I seem to have acquitted myself well.
What are O’Neill and Roy Keane like as a double act?
The two of them together have been a really good mix – they complement each other very well. They can really help us with their experience of winning major trophies. They have a winning mentality.
Fixtures and results
June 13, Sweden - Saint-Denis, Midnight
June 18, Belgium - Bordeaux, 9pm
June 23, Italy - Lille, #am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
vs Georgia (A) 2-1
vs Gibraltar (H) 7-0
vs Germany (A) 1-1
vs Scotland (A) 0-1
vs Poland (H) 1-1
vs Scotland (H) 1-1
vs Gibraltar (A) 4-0
vs Georgia (H) 1-0
vs Germany (H) 1-0
vs Poland (A) 1-2
vs Bosnia & Herz’a (A) 1-1
vs Bosnia & Herz’a (H) 2-0
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1988 Group stage
2012 Group stage
Words and interview: Chris Flanagan
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