The Republic of Ireland go into their second group game, knowing a win could put them in line to progress from Group E and all but eliminate pre-tournament favourites Belgium.
The Green Army gave a great account of themselves against Sweden in their opening game, being unlucky to only draw after Ciaran Clark’s own goal 20 minutes from time robbed them of all three points.
Belgium on the other hand, were shocked by Antonio Conte’s Italy, who comprehensively beat them 2-0 to leave the Red Devils bottom of the group and desperate for a win.
Much the better team
Ireland dominated Sweden for large parts of their game, hitting the bar twice with long-range efforts and Jeff Hendrick also forced a great save out of Andreas Isaksson early on.
They eventually found a break through just after half-time through Norwich City midfielder Wes Hoolahan’s curling volley into the far corner.
Ireland however, visibly tired throughout the second half, not helped by having six players over thirty-years-old in the team (although two were substitutes) and that led to Clark’s own goal after 70 minutes.
Ireland will be buoyed though over the fact they put in a fine performance to open the group and following Italy’s late win over Sweden, a win over Belgium would put them in the box seat to automatically qualify from Group E for the last 16.
Their opponents Belgium though, need to win to comeback from their opening game loss to the Italians in which they looked well short of their lofty expectations.
Far from good
Belgium were thoroughly outclassed by Italy, who showed you don’t need to have a superstar players to succeed but a superstar team, something Marc Wilmots has struggled to manage in his four years as Red Devils head coach.
The 47-year-old is under intense pressure to get the best out of this ‘Golden Generation’ and anything less than a victory over Ireland could spell defeat for a team that were tipped for success at these European Championships by many before it started.
With scarier midfield and attacking talent that Sweden, Ireland will probably see less of the ball than they did against Sweden and will have more than just Swedish talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic to worry about, whom they dealt with fairly well on Monday.
Premier League stars to be the difference
For both sides, English Premier League stars will look to be the key difference.
Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard will be looking to create the openings for out of sorts Everton striker Romelu Lukaku. All three players were disappointing for Belgium, despite being key players for their country.
The duo of de Bruyne and Hazard did miss training this week but both are expected to play, Ireland will however be missing Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters who aggravated an Achilles injury.
Without Walters, Ireland will miss one of their most experienced players and a lot of work-rate and endeavour that Martin O’Neill will need to replace.
However, they do have Norwich City’s Robbie Brady and Southampton’s Shane Long in the side and those two will be imperative if Ireland are to get a result out of this game.
Brady’s set piece delivery is very dangerous as is Long’s ability to get in behind defenders, Belgium were exposed by Italy in the first half with a long ball forward to Emanuele Giaccherini, who got in behind the Belgian back four and scored the opening goal.
Ireland should be looking to expose Belgium’s weakest area with deep passes towards Long whenever possible.
Must win for Red Devils
With Italy already progressing following their late 1-0 win over Sweden, Ireland know a win over Belgium would leave them only needing a point against Italy to qualify, it might not even take that much depending on how the other third place teams finish.
Belgium have to win to keep any hopes of making the second round in the top two alive or they could be relying on a big victory against Sweden to try and force their way in as a third placed team.
Certainly if a team with the amount of talent as Belgium failed to make it out of the group stages, coach Marc Wilmots will be lucky to make it to the next tournament still in this job.