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'Individually, Belgium are as talented as any side' - O'Neill prepares for life without Walters

Ireland are set to be without their talisman for Saturday’s Euro 2016 fixture in Bordeaux.

O'Neill speaking today.
O'Neill speaking today.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

- Ben Blake reports from Versailles 

MARTIN O’NEILL IS CONFIDENT there are a number of players in his squad who can step up to the plate and replace Jon Walters for Saturday’s second Euro 2016 match. 

The Ireland forward isn’t expected to be fit for the Group E meeting with Belgium due to an ongoing tendonitis problem, which troubled him throughout the 1-1 draw with Sweden before he was taken off after 64 minutes.

Walters was the only absentee this morning as 22 players trained at the Stade de Montbauron and he will almost certainly be unavailable to face the Red Devils with James McClean the favourite to benefit.

“He’s going to be struggling for the game,” revealed O’Neill. “He thinks if he does not make this game that he is hoping to be fit for Italy. There would have to be a lot of improvement for him to come through and be ready for it. If the game was tomorrow, he wouldn’t be ready.”

O’Neill will have to wait and see how the Stoke City man responds to rehabilitation, but insists he would only consider him for final Group E game on 22 June if the player himself says he is fit enough.

“If you are talking about risking a serious injury for someone, I wouldn’t do that,” added O’Neill. “I wouldn’t contemplate that there – he’s got a career ahead of him.

But if he felt he was capable of playing against Italy, and only he would say ‘yes, listen, I can do the same again in the Italian game’, I would certainly be considering that.”

Back in November, Walters was suspended when Ireland came away from Zenica with a 1-1 draw in their play-off first leg against Bosnia-Herzegovina and, despite his importance to the team, O’Neill believes others can fill the void.

“It’s true that he didn’t play the first game against Bosnia, so we can play without Jon,” he said.

“He has been influential in our games and he has probably been our talisman. He would be a loss to us but if he’s not fit we have a number of players who could step in and do really well for us.”

Jonathan Walters Walters watches on with coach Steve Guppy. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

With one point to their name, Ireland now face one of the pre-tournament favourites, who come into the game at the Stade de Bordeaux on the back of a 2-0 loss to Italy.

The Ireland boss continued: “If you were looking at the group, even Sweden and ourselves would admit that the two strongest sides  were Italy – I don’t know how they ended up in Pot 2 – and Belgium.

“Belgium are a great talent. Individually, they’re as talented as any side playing in the competition.”

Unlike Zlatan’s Sweden, the Belgians have top quality players in every position on the pitch and Ireland will make adjustments to their preparations in order to target their weaknesses.

“They play in a different style,” said O’Neill. “Belgium are a very talented side and we have to (plan differently). Little (Eden) Hazard is one of the best players playing in the world at this minute.

“They’ve got talent and players playing big matches every single week at club level so we have to cope with that.

“They are a totally different issue to Sweden in terms of build-up, in terms of approach and in terms of how they might play.

There is only so much you can do and individuals like Ibrahimovic and Hazard will eventually break you down because they are good enough players to do so.”

O’Neill again spoke about how he was hugely-encouraged by Ireland’s opening performance, in which saw them produce decent spells of football and create the lion’s share of chances, and called for more of the same.

“The thing we’re trying to do here is be confident within ourselves on the ball,” he explained. “Deal with it, feel as if you belong here. I honestly think that was the most impressive thing of all in the (Sweden) game.

“That might the best we do, I don’t know, but that was the most impressive thing of all in the game. The players actually believed that they could play, take time and play it. Jeff Hendrick was a revelation in many aspects. We did great, little Robbie Brady… I could mention the whole side.

“It is going to be difficult for us, but if we take the performance against Sweden into the game I think we can cause also cause Belgium problems.”

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

O’Neill: Belgium have a set of individuals and Italy are no has-beens, they’re a tournament team

Picking Walters was a gamble that didn’t pay off and now it could cost Ireland dearly

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Ben Blake

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