Twenty-two years ago to the day since Ray Houghton scored that famous goal against Italy at the 1994 World Cup finals, the Republic of Ireland went in search of another memorable victory against a European powerhouse. This time, however, there was no fairytale ending and unless Martin O’Neill and his players can summon something spectacular against the Azzurri in Lille on Wednesday, all roads point to home for Ireland.
O’Neill had promised to reserve judgment on how many Belgium players would get into the Ireland team until after this game and that turned out to be a wise decision on the manager’s part. Ireland were outclassed in every department other than in the stands, where their wonderful supporters, whether picking up litter, changing tyres or singing their hearts out, continue do to their country proud in France.
Michel Platini travelled to Dublin to present them with an award in 2012 for their exemplary behaviour at the European Championship finals earlier that summer and they could well be in the running for that trophy again, assuming dancing to Westlife songs before and after the Sweden game is not held against them. Unfortunately, there is little for them to cheer about on the pitch.
The last time Ireland won a match at a major tournament was way back in 2002, when they beat Saudi Arabia at the World Cup finals, and that disappointing run of results never looked like coming to an end against Belgium. The chasm between the two teams was every bit as wide as it appeared on paper before a ball had been kicked.
Kevin De Bruyne was outstanding, Romelu Lukaku unforgiving with his ruthless finishing and Eden Hazard showed some lovely touches, in particular when he glided along the right flank to set up Belgium’s third. Ciaran Clark, racing across to the touchline, could not get close enough to Hazard to foul him and that pretty much summed up Ireland’s day.
If Ireland’s first problem was getting the ball, keeping it was the second. O’Neill spoke beforehand about the need to show composure in possession, as they did for a long period during the 1-1 draw with Sweden in their opening group match, but everything was frantic and hurried against much more accomplished opponents.
The fact that Darren Randolph, their goalkeeper, had attempted more passes than any other Ireland player by half-time said it all.
Even on those rare moments when Ireland got themselves into a decent attacking position, the final pass was loose or careless and nothing came of a promising opportunity. Shane Long looked isolated and forlorn up front, there was no real spark or creativity in midfield and it was difficult to see where an Ireland goal would come from on an afternoon when they failed to register a shot on target for the first time at a major tournament since a goalless draw with Norway in 1994.
Maybe there should be some wider context to put this defeat into perspective. Ireland have been blessed with much more talented players in the past, especially during those halcyon days under Jack Charlton, when anything seemed possible for a time. Belgium, in contrast, have never had it better with this “golden generation” and, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the last thing Ireland needed was for Italy to inflict a chastening 2-0 defeat that Lukaku had described as a “reality check”.
Marc Wilmots’s side looked like they wanted to set the record straight after a difficult week and Ireland, with their backs-to-the-wall approach, were only going to hold out for so long. When Axel Witsel added a second, just after the hour mark, O’Neill turned on his heel, looked towards the dugout and made a change. Deep down, though, the Ireland manager must have known that there was no way back for his team.
If there is any comfort for Ireland it lies in the fact that Italy are not only already through to the last 16 but guaranteed to finish as group winners, which means that Antonio Conte’s side effectively have nothing to play for at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy and could decide to rest players.
Yet to capitalise on that situation Ireland will need to play with much more conviction and belief, especially going forward. They will also have to hope that Sweden do not beat Belgium, which seems highly unlikely on the evidence of how De Bruyne and Lukaku performed against Ireland.
Robbie Keane, a late substitute for Long, led the Ireland players over to their supporters at the final whistle, with the striker urging those on the bench to join him on the pitch and applaud the sea of green, white and orange at one end of the stadium. The challenge for O’Neill and his players now is to give those same fans something really to celebrate in Lille.
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