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O'Neill's poor in-game management ensures lack of faith ahead of crunch Italian clash

A 1-1 draw with a pitifully-poor Sweden led to Irish fans losing themselves in a haze of unfounded positivity.

Image: Hassan Ammar

WE’RE A COUNTRY of extremes, really.

When it’s good, it’s very good.

But when it’s bad, it’s horrible.

We don’t particularly enjoy the in-between. We’d rather ignore it and either revel in a blissful state of nirvana or skirt the depressing depths of despair.

Thankfully, when you need a gauge, our national broadcaster is a pretty solid barometer of the nation’s state of mind.

Ahead of the Republic of Ireland’s game with Belgium, the mood was one of confidence.

“There’s no problem with our lads. They’re great lads”, said Eamon Dunphy in the RTE studios, when Ireland’s 1-1 opening draw against a pitifully-poor Sweden was being lauded as some kind of masterclass.

But, it was all a little different once Martin O’Neill’s side had been thumped.

It only took 90 minutes but previous opinions and over-the-top declarations were swept to one side and quickly forgotten.

Everything had changed.

“The hunger, the desire…is it there?” asked Dunphy.

“We didn’t get on Ciaran Clark’s case for giving an own goal away against Sweden. We said okay, it can happen. No one wants to be too critical of players.”

Extremes.

Before the game, Dunphy and his cohorts dissected Clark’s own goal and other indecisive moments in a video analysis package.

But, it’s quickly forgotten. Just sweep it to the side.

Back to what we do best.

In the cold, sobering aftermath, we ignore the finer details. We don’t have the time, patience or desire to sit down and try and understand why something bad has just happened.

We’re far too pragmatic for that.

Instead, we shout loudly. We contradict ourselves. We drown in the frustration of having allowed the hope kill us again. We huff and puff. And drown our sorrows.

And we’ll be back again soon. Full of confidence. Again.

Right now though, we’re a little unsure. The 3-0 loss in Bordeaux was a strangely humbling experience.

Mainly because we had lost ourselves in something of a haze after the Sweden draw.

As much as there has been plenty of self-congratulatory tweeness – whether for our fine array of Fr. Ted-related tricolours or the fact that we’re just having the craic when others are rioting, the quality of our football has also been unfairly trumpeted.

Against Sweden, there were positives – Jeff Hendrick’s magnificent individual performance, the quality of Wes Hoolahan’s goal, the well-worked chances we created.

But this is a major tournament. The Sweden game offered us the best chance of victory.

Getting shots on target, particularly against a slow, ponderous and dull opposition, should be expected.

Dominating the same opposition should be expected.

Yet, the issues that were also on show were ignored. Swept to the side.

No one really wanted to be the party pooper.

There were problems with the diamond formation, particularly the lack of impact made by the two strikers selected and Hoolahan’s role at the tip.

Yet, despite having little influence on the majority of the game, Hoolohan’s goal was all anyone wanted to discuss.

Sweden’s attacking strategy extended to their left-back, Martin Olsson, getting forward and sending in crosses.

Republic of Ireland v Sweden - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de France Source: Chris Radburn

It was that way from within minutes of the kick-off, yet, as James McCarthy desperately struggled with the midfield system and the idea of having to monitor an opposing defender, it was never rectified.

Olsson’s influence meant Seamus Coleman’s contributions were minimised. When he did manage to get forward, he caused problems – his first foray in the final third resulted in a Brady shot that just whistled over while his second led to Hoolahan’s goal.

But that was it.

Because of the system and a lack of positive alterations from the Irish bench, Olsson wrestled back dominance of the flank as McCarthy continued to offer little protection.

When a change came, it needed to be a switch to a flat midfield five and Hendrick moving to the right to cover the Olsson threat, giving McCarthy more familiarity inside.

Ireland needed to quell Sweden’s momentum but they didn’t.

Within seven minutes of James McClean’s introduction, it was 1-1. And the goal, unsurprisingly, came from that left channel.

Ireland retreated after taking the lead. They dropped far too deep and allowed Sweden up the tempo and start creating.

But O’Neill could’ve nipped that in the bud. Instead, it was allowed to fester and his side were inevitably punished.

Caught up with the fact that Hendrick hit the crossbar, tested the goalkeeper twice and Hoolahan conjured a fine individual goal, much of the Irish deficiencies were ignored – particularly O’Neill’s failure to take decisive action.

Republic of Ireland v Belgium - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de Bordeaux Source: Martin Rickett

It was still ignored in the build-up to the Belgian game.

Instead, we spent our time dissecting the disarray in Marc Wilmots’ camp and the various problems between him and his players.

We spent our time discussing how Belgium’s gifted individuals weren’t actually that good at all.

According to Dunphy, Kevin de Bruyne was ‘over-rated’ and would be ‘lucky to survive’ under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City next season.

In a video analysis, Dunphy dubbed de Bruyne as ‘lazy’ as his attempted cross was blocked by an Italian defender.

“He doesn’t look a player at all”, was the astute conclusion.

That’s Kevin de Bruyne, who hit 16 goals for City in all competitions in his first campaign at the Etihad and contributed a litany of assists.

The same Kevin de Bruyne who was crowned the Bundesliga’s Player of the Year in 2015.

It was a reflection – though certainly an extension – of a wider Irish flippancy towards Belgium.

We were buoyed by a brilliant 1-1 draw with Sweden. We threw our shoulders back and thrust our chest out.

They were in the midst of a meltdown. They were having arguments. They were under pressure. Their big players were over-hyped.

We had spirit and togetherness.

We had ‘great lads’.

But we had major deficiencies too.

Against Belgium, Robbie Brady was selected on the left of midfield so he could push Ireland higher when they had the ball.

That never happened.

Instead, Ireland began the game sitting 20 yards too deep and Belgium’s right-back, Thomas Meunier, was effectively moonlighting as a wing-back – pinning Brady back.

Meanwhile, Hoolahan, seen as a magician after that goal against Sweden, was a passenger. As the most advanced of a five-man midfield, he had one moment in the first half when he popped up in a dangerous area.

That was it.

Republic of Ireland v Belgium - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de Bordeaux Source: Chris Radburn

Once, Shane Long was able to get in behind the Belgian defence when Stephen Ward pinged an ambitious ball into the left channel and the attacker did brilliantly to hold up and recycle.

It never happened again.

Nothing was tweaked despite the first-half onslaught we faced.

And within three minutes of the restart, we were punished. Again, just like the Sweden game, it was inevitable.

Within eight minutes of McClean’s introduction, it was 2-0.

And the game was over.

At that stage, conceding more goals was a real possibility. And, with goal difference being so crucial in terms of potential qualification to the knockout stages, were we more likely to score twice and force a draw or concede more and jeopardise our chances of possibly progressing?

O’Neill decided to bring in Aiden McGeady, again, and Robbie Keane – for little or no reason.

The concession of a third goal does have some bearing.

Republic of Ireland v Belgium - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de Bordeaux Source: Chris Radburn/PA Wire/Press Association Images

In the race for second place, Ireland now have to beat Italy by two more goals than Sweden beat Belgium by – and that would be to draw level with the Swedes right across the board – it still doesn’t give us an edge.

And using fair play conduct as tiebreaker criteria, Ireland would still finish third.

Yes, four points should still qualify Ireland for the knockout stages as one of the best third-placed sides.

But such a seemingly innocuous detail could be the difference in Ireland facing Spain/France in a knockout round game or Hungary.

Is that O’Neill’s fault?

Well, it’s about a wider understanding. This isn’t a qualification campaign. The little things – the finer things – are crucial.

And it appears O’Neill isn’t as tuned into them as he should be.

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French newspaper L’Equipe didn’t hold back with their player ratings for Ireland v Belgium

Ireland have already pulled off one miracle – now it’s time for another

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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