Euro 2016 – Republic of Ireland

In overcoming Bosnia in the play-offs last November, the Republic of Ireland qualified for their second European Championship finals in a row. Martin O’Neill’s men have been drawn into Group E against Sweden, Belgium and Italy – an unenviable group on paper.

In the play-off against Bosnia, the Republic scored an away goal in Zenica to secure a 1-1 draw to take back to Ireland, before beating the eastern Europeans 2-0 in Dublin thanks to a brace from John Walters. As the final whistle blew, the 50,500 supporters, most of which were Ireland fans, instantly forgot the heartache of the World Cup 2010 play-off defeat after losing out France – the result of a controversial goal which came courtesy of an assist following a blatant Thierry Henry handball.

Martin O’Neill will be hoping to better than his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni who took the team to Euro 2012 in Poland & Ukraine four years ago. The Republic came bottom of Group C after a terrible campaign where they managed to just score one goal and concede nine in three group defeats against Croatia, Spain and Italy respectively.

Their group looks just as tough this time around and once again face the Italians who will also be looking to do better after being beaten 4-0 by Spain in the 2012 final.

How was the Republic’s qualifying campaign as a whole?

When Jonathan Walters volley hit the back of the net, Martin O’Neill’s side was afforded breathing space. That was the Stoke City forward’s second goal of the return leg of the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2016 play-off against Bosnia & Herzegovina, a tie which they won 2-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate to send them to the tournament in France this summer.

The Boys in Green advanced to the play-offs after finishing third in Group D behind Germany and Poland. With the strength of those two sides it always looked like being a straight shoot-out between Ireland and Scotland for third place, which O’Neill’s side duly won, finishing three points ahead of their Celtic rivals.

The Republic’s journey to France began with a 2-1 win in Georgia thanks to an Aiden McGeady brace, a solid result that was followed with an emphatic one; a 7-0 dismantling of group whipping boys Gibraltar in Dublin, captain Robbie Keane netting an 18-minute hat-trick. The team were in great shape with six points from their opening two games of qualifying.

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What followed was to become a staple of Ireland’s quest to reach the Championships; a result against all the odds built on stubborn resilience and sheer desire as they nicked a point in stoppage time at the home of the World Champions; John O’Shea netting in the 94th minute following a corner to cancel out a Toni Kroos strike for Germany.

Buoyed by such a result, the Irish then made the relatively short trip to Glasgow where the bubble appeared to burst as they suffered a first defeat of the campaign, a Shaun Maloney goal the difference between two evenly matched sides.

But much like the game against the Germans, Ireland’s grit and never-say-die attitude told in Dublin against Poland as they once again earned a point in stoppage time with Shane Long’s goal cancelling out Sławomir Peszko’s first-half effort. A point against each of the group’s big boys would’ve given the squad a huge lift and it put them in a great position to qualify for the tournament.

Ireland then welcomed Scotland to the Aviva Stadium as they were held to a 1-1 draw, this time the hero in Germany O’Shea putting through his own net in the second half to wipe out Walters’ goal in the first. O’Neill’s side were still looking good in the group and they travelled to Gibraltar looking to complete the double over the minnows, which they accomplished with an emphatic 4-0 victory; Keane’s brace and another Long goal following an opener from Derby County’s Cyrus Christie.

O’Neill’s team followed their impressive point in Germany with an even better result as they defeated Joachim Low’s World Champions 1-0 in Dublin; Shane Long once again making the difference and scoring the crucial goal. Coupled with Scotland’s 3-2 defeat at home to the Germans, the group was steadily falling in Ireland’s favour as those in contention headed towards the business end of the qualifying campaign.

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The round of fixtures in Group D concluded with a defeat for Ireland in Warsaw, which meant they headed into the play-offs as Poland finished second. Third in the group behind Germany and Poland and still in with a chance of qualification for France was seen as a solid and respectable effort from Ireland. Their 3-1 aggregate victory over Bosnia was reward for their endeavour and off to France they go.

Can they survive the ‘Group of Death’ against Sweden, Belgium and Italy? 

The Republic have arguably been handed the toughest draw of all at Euro 2016 as their opponents in Group E are Sweden, Belgium and Italy. They will need some sort of minor miracle to qualify for the knock-out stages of the competition. Belgium have emerged as one of the top international teams in recent years and feature a raft of Premier League stars such as Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Toby Alderweireld, among others.

Italy will offer a typically stubborn resistance and Sweden can call on Zlatan Ibrahimović’s attacking prowess which will represent another tough hurdle for the Irish.

Ireland with Martin O’Neill, along with assistant Roy Keane, begin their campaign against Ibrahimović’s team on 13th June at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, Paris. They then take on Marc Wilmot’s Belgium in Bordeaux on the 18th. The Republic finish the group against Italy four days later at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille.

By such an occasion they will know if it is to be another disappointing tournament, or they would’ve pulled off one of the great group stage performances in European Championship history.

Who are going to be Ireland’s key players this summer?

Martin O’Neill is sweating on the fitness of captain Robbie Keane after the veteran striker underwent knee surgery, ruling him out for a minimum of six weeks. Keane’s experience will be key if Ireland are to have a successful tournament so it is vital that the LA Galaxy player makes it in time.

The squad has struggled with other injuries in forward areas in recent weeks, with play-off hero Jonathan Walters and Kevin Doyle both nursing knocks. Elsewhere the Republic can call on Shane Long’s pace to stretch defences on the counter-attack when they are up against it, which they surely will be in all of their group games. Long’s willingness to run and pull apart a back four is a tactic O’Neill will be eager is utilize.

If they require a Plan B in attack then Ipswich Town’s Daryl Murphy can be called upon to be the big target man should they need an equaliser late on.

The team has suffered a major blow in goal as Rob Elliot suffered knee ligament damage in the recent friendly against Slovakia, ruling the Newcastle United keeper out for the remainder of the season and the tournament in the summer. This leaves West Ham’s Darren Randolph, Sheffield Wednesday’s Keiren Westwood and veterans Shay Given and David Forde to fight it out for the number 1 jersey.

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Along with Elliot’s season ending injury, the squad has been damaged further with Brentford midfielder Alan Judge suffering a broken leg following a challenge from Ipswich’s Luke Hyam. Judge has been one of the Championship’s stand-out players this term so it is unfortunate that he will not be included in the squad.

The other midfielders at O’Neill’s disposal claim a wealth of Premier League experience between them, with players such as Darron Gibson, Aiden McGeady, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan, James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and James McClean all vying for places. The impressive form of Bournemouth’s Harry Arter this season will also have grabbed O’Neill’s attention.

If Robbie Keane is to miss the tournament then the leadership and experience of John O’Shea will come to the fore. The Sunderland centre-half will be a vital cog in Ireland’s back-four. Everton right-back Seamus Coleman has developed into a top player; Ireland fans can expect to see him bombing down the right wing to offer supply to the attackers on regular occasions.

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Has Roy Keane’s presence in the international set-up done anything for the team after leaving Aston Villa to concentrate on the role?

Martin O’Neill has the former Manchester United captain to call on as his right-hand man. His experience playing under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and winning multiple Premier League crowns under Sir Alex Ferguson at United will no doubt come across in his coaching. He took the job as Republic assistant coach while he was in the same role at Aston Villa next to Paul Lambert.

Juggling both roles proved a handful and he subsequently left the Midlands outfit to concentrate fully on his duties with the national team.

Keane is the combative and aggressive presence to counteract O’Neill’s more softly spoken approach. The fighting spirit he exhibited as a player will no doubt transfer to some of his younger counterparts in the Ireland squad.

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It seems that his presence with the national team has been a positive one and we will soon find out if has helped in terms of results in less than a month when the tournament kicks-off. It is a tall order for Ireland to make it out of the group they find themselves in at the tournament but if this domestic season has taught us anything it’s that anything can happen. The Republic players will surely have that at the forefront of their minds when they board the flight to France.

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