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Martin O'Neill says the pitch could be 'a problem' for Ireland-Belgium tomorrow

The Ireland boss also jokingly referred to Roy Keane as “the werewolf of Manchester” today.

Martin O'Neill (centre) with assistant Roy Keane (right) and FAI head of fitness Dan Horan (left) during a training session at the Stade de Bordeaux.
Martin O'Neill (centre) with assistant Roy Keane (right) and FAI head of fitness Dan Horan (left) during a training session at the Stade de Bordeaux.
Image: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Updated at 20.07

SO HOW MANY Belgium players could get in the Ireland team?

This was one rather loaded question Martin O’Neill was asked at today’s press conference. The Ireland manager, of course, dealt with it in his usual wry manner.

“John?” he said, alluding to Ireland captain John O’Shea, who was sitting next to O’Neill for the press conference.

“I’ll leave that to you, boss. I’m definitely leaving it to the boss,” the veteran centre-back answered.

“There would be a number,” O’Neill finally replied, in typically cryptic fashion. “How significant that number is will probably depend on tomorrow evening. They are very talented, there’s no question about it, no question.”

Meanwhile, O’Neill admits the pitch could be “a problem” for tomorrow’s crucial Ireland-Belgium Euro 2016 clash.

Wales-Slovakia and Hungary-Austria have already been played at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, with the surface appearing heavily cut up and several ground staff attending to it this evening.

The pitches that cut up do have bearing in matches. I’m not sure Uefa would  have allowed us to train (if was particularly bad), but I don’t know,” O’Neill said.

“Do they cause a problem? Absolutely.”

Ahead of today’s press conference, the other game in Ireland’s group — Italy versus Sweden — took place. The Italians’ 1-0 win was viewed by many as a positive outcome for Ireland, though O’Neill seemed reluctant to wholeheartedly agree.

“We were able to see the second half of it when we got off the plane and got into the hotel, and the late goal by Italy has obviously given them six points on the board.

“I’m not exactly sure in terms of permutations just at this minute — I think we’ll have enough of those after tomorrow evening.

But what we have to look at is ourselves against Belgium and I think regardless now, it looks as if we have to win a game, anyway.”

Ireland will be one without key player in Jon Walters, but the 64-year-old coach hinted that there wouldn’t otherwise be many changes from the Sweden game for tomorrow’s clash.

“There has to be a choice anyway now because Jon Walters is not going to be fit, so we’ll have to make at least one change. We’ll have a look at it and decide tomorrow morning.”

pitch

But far from being tired from a tense and tough Swedish fixture, O’Neill added that the players may even benefit tomorrow from the game time they had on Monday. Jeff Hendrick, to cite one example, was playing just his second competitive match since March, so that intense 90 minutes of action may have enhanced the Derby man’s fitness ultimately.

Looking ahead to Saturday’s match, O’Neill acknowledged his tactics are likely to be considerably different to the Sweden game, though he hopes the Boys in Green can emulate their positivity in possession from that match.

Belgium are a totally different side in make-up to Sweden. We have to look at the strengths that they have — individually, they are as talented as any side playing — we have to look at that, and then again, I think as important as anything is that when we have possession of the ball, we play with the same sort of confidence as we played the other evening.

“We have to be mentally tuned in, we have to be physically as strong as we possibly can be and we can’t afford 15, 20-minute periods where we fall into a lull. We can’t afford to do that.”

And what of recent talk about friction in the Belgium camp and the Red Devils allegedly regarding Ireland as the perfect game to get their spirit back?

“That I don’t know, that I’m unaware of, so there’s no point in me commenting on something I have no idea about.

When you do get individuals as good as Belgium can be, if they don’t win a game they are maybe expected to and there’s talk about friction in the camp at the minute when they don’t beat Italy — Italy are a top-class side, they are a tournament team.”

In addition to congratulating neighbours Northern Ireland on a “terrific result” last night, O’Neill, in one of his lighter moments, poked fun at assistant Roy Keane’s beard.

“I was wondering how long it would take to get a question on Mr Keane. He’s fine, he’s fine, he really is fine. We locked him up about 25 minutes ago and I don’t think we are going to allow him to come here.

He’s caged in at this minute as his beard gets longer and uglier. But he’s good — in fact, he’s been very good. Would you agree, John?”

“Yes, I agree, yes. Definitely the beard is getting slightly longer,” O’Shea responded in droll fashion.

“He’s the werewolf of Manchester,” O’Neill added, much to the amusement of the assembled press.

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Paul Fennessy

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