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Darko Vojinovic Ireland's Robbie Brady, centre, celebrates with supporters at the end of the Euro 2016 Group E match.
# Opinion
Ireland prove they can compete with top sides tactically and technically
The Boys in Green matched Italy, one of the favourites to win the competition, in almost every department on Wednesday night.

Paul Fennessy reports from Versailles

IT IS NOT very wise to dismiss this Ireland side.

Few gave the Boys in Green any hope of qualifying for Euro 2016 after the draw at home with Scotland last June.

Almost everyone predicted a loss against world champions Germany on the two times the sides met in the qualifiers.

And the obituaries were already being written ahead of last night’s game with Italy in Lille.

Former assistant manager Marco Tardelli even accused Ireland of being tactically inept and lacking in footballing intellect.

O’Neill hit back at the Italian’s claims last night, saying:  “Marco said we didn’t play with our head… Tonight’s performance against his nation might have put that to rest, at least for a day or two.”

And last night, Ireland were inspired tactically and technically. O’Neill got the better of Conte, one of the most highly-rated coaches in world football, making inspired substitutions in particular, as Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady were both key to Ireland’s exquisite final flourish.

So on all the aforementioned occasions, Ireland proved their critics wrong, and so it would be foolish to rule out a victory on Sunday, despite the daunting prospect of facing hosts France, the current favourites to win the competition outright at 4/1, on Sunday in the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.

Ireland have had a few fortuitous wins against big sides in the past, but what was most impressive about this victory was that they fully deserved it.

Moreover, while it was undoubtedly a below-par Italy team, it was still a remarkable achievement for Ireland to beat them.

Consider the respective clubs of the two starting lineups…

Ireland: West Ham, Everton, Derby, Blackburn, Burnley; Everton, Norwich, Derby, West Brom; Ipswich, Southampton.

Italy: PSG, Juventus, Juventus, West Ham; Milan, Roma, Juventus, PSG, Fiorentina; Juventus, Torino.

On paper, Italy should have won comfortably, but as Azzurri manager Antonio Conte noted after the match: “Ireland played above their usual level.”

Soccer Euro 2016 Italy Ireland Frank Augstein Italy's Alessandro Florenzi, left, fights for the ball with Ireland's Daryl Murphy. Frank Augstein

Indeed, such was the Irish team’s control in the first half that Italy had just one shot (which was off target) in the first half.

Ireland’s possession stats were also better than normal — whereas they saw 43% of the ball against Belgium and Sweden, they had 48% overall against the Italians.

While Italy were better in the second half, Ireland never suffered from the kind of sustained lulls they experienced against both the Swedes and the Belgians, and unlike the previous two matches, rarely looked prone to conceding.

What was key to the victory was the team’s attitude and mentality.

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Before the match, many critics were suggesting Ireland simply weren’t good enough and lacked the technical ability to the compete at this level.

Yet these claims ignore the fact that Ireland have controlled the majority of possession in plenty of big games in recent times, including home matches versus Poland and Scotland, and away to Georgia.

Even last night, against a side of Italy’s calibre, notwithstanding their absent players, Ireland effectively matched them in every department — possession, tactics, work-rate and physicality.

So why were they so superb the other night and utterly inept against Belgium last weekend?

Much of it seemingly has to do with mentality, as we discussed in a previous article.

Against Sweden, having deservedly gone ahead, the team ill-advisedly tried to sit far too deep and cling on for a victory. This policy patently failed to pay off and Ireland looked to have blown their only genuine chance of a victory at Euro 2016.

Moreover, in the Belgium game, there was a sense that a draw would be a good result and Ireland played as if that was the case, with their play characterised by the type of hesitance, negativity and indecision that was largely conspicuous by its absence last night.

The big difference against Italy was that there was no ambiguity about the result. Ireland needed to win or they would have exited the competition.

The situation definitely benefited the Boys in Green, as the psychology of knowing that victory was necessary seemed to bring out the best in the side.

It was also probably a blessing in disguise that — as agonising a game as it was to watch — the goal came so late. Had Ireland got the penalty they deserved when James McClean was blatantly taken down by Federico Bernardeschi, a repeat of the Sweden match may well have ensued, as Ireland may have impulsively opted to sit back and hold on for a nervy victory, playing into the Italians’ hands in the process.

It’s also important that Ireland take the mentality of the Italy game to Lyon on Sunday and that the underdogs aren’t intimidated or overly anxious about the prospect of facing the hosts and favourites to win the competition.

As O’Neill said in his press conference earlier: “It’s nice to see younger players coming through and feeling as if they belong on the international stage, which is the most important thing — to go and do something about it and for the future, it looks good.

We would have to play in the manner which we did last night. We would have to play with the same confidence, intensity, and if we can do that we can cause them problems.”

Therefore, if James McClean can set the tone with an early crunching tackle, if James McCarthy can maintain his energy and agility, if Jeff Hendrick can dominate midfield, if Shane Long and Daryl Murphy can run their hearts out and win clever free-kicks, if Shane Duffy can make his second competitive match as memorable as his first, and if newly appointed captain Seamus Coleman can give another spine-tingling speech, then maybe, just maybe, Ireland can pull off another shock against the French.

In many ways, Les Bleus are the antithesis of Ireland. While their players are clearly more talented, they have been accused of being a side less than the sum of their parts.

Consequently, in terms of qualities such as heart, spirit and cohesion, few other teams at Euro 2016 can match Ireland, and on Sunday, it might just give them the edge.

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