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Ireland have already pulled off one miracle - now it's time for another

Martin O’Neill’s side were comprehensively beaten by Belgium yesterday.

Belgium's Axel Witsel, top, scores on a header his side's second goal.
Belgium's Axel Witsel, top, scores on a header his side's second goal.

Paul Fennessy reports from Bordeaux

YESTERDAY’S DEFEAT TO Belgium brought back memories of Ireland’s dismal Euro 2012 campaign as Martin O’Neill’s men were comprehensively beaten by a much better side.

An encouraging performance in the opening game against Sweden in Saint-Denis had seemingly eradicated the possibility of a collapse akin to the dismal showing of four years previously.

However, a campaign that began with so much promise and an excellent Wes Hoolahan goal is in danger of ending with a whimper.

While there have undoubtedly been more talented Irish sides over the years, this group have shown resilience in the face of adversity in the past.

As he attempts to raise morale, Martin O’Neill could do worse than remind the Irish players of the similarly hopeless-seeming situation they found themselves in last June.

After a 1-1 draw with Scotland at the Aviva Stadium, many critics wrote Ireland off, just as they are doing right now.

The result left Ireland fourth in the table, two points behind the Scots in the group, and with an inferior head-to-head record.

But not many predicted that Gordon Strachan’s side would lose to Georgia, while even fewer tipped Ireland to beat reigning world champions Germany.

Just as the Irish team defeating Joachim Löw’s side seemed unimaginable at the time, the prospect of a win against an Italian side who deservedly overcame Belgium looks like an outcome that even the most wildly optimistic Boys in Green supporter would find difficult to forecast right now.

Indeed, a win against Italy would arguably be an even greater achievement than the Germany triumph.

Whereas the German match was a home fixture in the early stages of the season, the Italy clash comes in the wake of an intense few days of tournament football and with the team’s morale at a low point following the Belgium loss.

Those Irish players involved mostly started pre-season training last July, and therefore have been playing football relentlessly for almost a year now. And unless he makes a swift recovery in the next few days, Ireland will also have to do it without a key player in Jon Walters.

Even a draw, which would usually be considered an excellent result against such an esteemed footballing nation, will likely be thought of as a failure, as Ireland play an Italy team that will finish top of Group E regardless of the outcome, with a couple of changes to their starting XI expected.

Martin O’Neill’s greatest achievement as manager of the side has been bringing back a feel-good factor to Irish football, which scarcely existed even during the best points of Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure.

Yet one dispiriting defeat and it’s back to the bad old days, seemingly, unless O’Neill can prove the naysayers wrong for the second time in the space of the year. It seems irrational to think that Ireland can beat Italy on the basis of how the Group E games have panned out so far, but then there was little evidence to suggest that Leicester could win the Premier League, a group of Northern Irish journeymen could become heroes, or Shane Long could rattle the world champions.

In football’s year of the underdog, Ireland trumping the Italians would be up there with the biggest shocks of the past 12 months. And if they lose comprehensively? We’ll always have Paris.

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Paul Fennessy

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