Hassan Ammar
all or nothing

O'Neill out for another big scalp but poor showing will call into question timing of new deal

Ireland’s Euro 2016 hangs in the balance and victory over Italy is vital if they are to remain in the competition past the group stages.

- Ben Blake reports from Lille 

LED BY ONE man beating a drum and another carrying a giant speaker on his head, Ireland fans partied like it was their last into the early hours of this morning on Lille’s Parvis Saint-Michel.

There wasn’t a sense among the estimated 1,000-strong crowd in the square that their team was on the brink of elimination from Euro 2016, but the simple fact is that the Boys in Green will be waving goodbye to France if they can’t pull off their first win at over the Azzurri at a major tournament since 1994 this evening (8pm Irish time).

Although they are already through as Group E winners, Italy were thrown a curveball last night as Croatia’s late winner against Spain means the 2012 finalists will now meet in a mouth-watering last-16 tie.

Antonio Conte had already suggested that he could rest “between seven and nine players” for tonight’s game in at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, and they may find it difficult not to have one eye on their knockout stage tie with the reigning champions.

There was further good news from an Irish point of view on Tuesday as Northern Ireland’s 1-0 loss to Germany ensured that three points against Italy tonight would guarantee the Republic progression — where the opponents would be either Croatia in Lens on Saturday or hosts France in Lyon the following evening.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic was enough to secure Michael O’Neill’s side a prolonged stay as one of the best third-placed nations. In their first major tournament since 1986, the will take on France or Wales depending on how the last set of group fixtures pan out.

Granted, Ireland’s Group E with Italy, Belgium and Sweden was seen as one of the toughest as far back as the draw last December, but, having watched perceived minnows such as Wales, Northern Ireland, Hungary and Albania all pick up wins this month, it does leave you feeling that the opener with the Swedes was a missed opportunity and two points dropped.

They were there for the taking at the Stade de France and the performance was a good one but Ireland couldn’t convert their positive play several genuine chances into a winning goal.

The display brought hope to fans that taking points off Belgium was achievable as we convinced ourselves they had a squad stacked with talent but lacking in unity or cohesion.

How wrong that turned out to be as Ireland were outclassed, outfought and severely punished for a couple of individual mistakes in Bordeaux.

Now, without the leadership of Jon Walters, and possibly one or two other first team regulars if he does opt to ring in the changes, Martin O’Neill is after one of the biggest scalps of his 30-year managerial career.

The Derryman insisted this team are capable of causing an upset and encouraged the players to take inspiration from last October’s upset in Dublin, when that wondrous strike from substitute Shane Long handed world champions Germany a 1-0 defeat.

Assistant Roy Keane has also said this week that for Ireland to win they will need to be at their best and be blessed with a bit of luck — just like they were that night at the Aviva Stadium.

Whatever tonight’s result the Ireland manager plans to address the media back in Versailles tomorrow morning.

If he has sealed an unlikely qualification, it will be an opportunity to soak up the well-deserved plaudits but another showing like the one against Belgium would leave Ireland with a single point from three matches and inevitably lead to questions over the FAI’s decision to hand him and his backroom staff a new contract before the tournament.

Listen to The42′s Ben Blake on the 98FM Euro 2016 Daily podcast throughout the tournament 

We’ve picked the Ireland team that should line out against Italy

‘It’s not a pointless game’ – Italy may have qualified for last 16 but won’t be going easy on Ireland

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