SINCE the draw was made in December, many have predicted Ireland to miss out on making it through to the knockout round of 16.
And with a group containing world number two side Belgium, 2012 finalists Italy and a Sweden team who boast one of the world’s best players in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it’s easy to see why.
However, even though Group E appears to present a difficult task, it should by no means be considered impossible. The three teams mentioned in Ireland’s group all have their weaknesses. And after taking four points off world champions Germany in qualifying, the boys in green will surely believe they can exploit these flaws and give themselves an opportunity to advance through the group.
What’s more, the best third placed team is also able to qualify for the next round in this year’s championships, which opens up another possible avenue for the Republic, who will be hoping to remedy a poor showing in Euro 2012, when the Irish team were sent packing after three straight defeats. Nevertheless, we’ve evaluated the size of task ahead for Martin O’Neill’s men in Group E.
Manager: Eric Hamren
Star player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
World Ranking: 35
Previous best: Semi-finals (1992)
Tournament Odds: 100/1
Having scored an impressive 11 goals during qualifying, Ibrahimovic is clearly the man to stop if Ireland have any ambitions of overcoming the Swedes in the first group game in Paris. Intense pressure is on the striker to perform as he quite simply shoulders the burden of the whole nation as the undisputed key to their dreams.
But, that over reliance on Ibrahimovic is perhaps the reason why the Swedes have failed to progress past the group stage in the last two championships. Meanwhile, they qualified for this year’s tournament after finishing third in their group behind Russia and Austria before beating neighbours Denmark 4-3 on aggregate in a play-off thanks to two goals from the aforementioned striker.
Hence, with the lack of world class quality elsewhere in the team, which has been admitted by their coach Eric Hamren, Sweden will therefore more than likely present the best opportunity for Ireland to gain three points in the group.
That said, the Scandinavians are an experienced side with plenty of know-how in Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson and West Brom’s Jonas Olsson, although the squad is conceivably dearth of real creativity and hinges spectacularly with a dependence on one man.
TEAM STAT: Sweden have qualified for the last five consecutive European Championships
Manager: Marc Wilmots
Star Player: Kevin De Bruyne
World Ranking: 2
Previous best: Runners up (1980)
Tournament odds: 11/1
Placed debatably at number two in the world, Belgium are the favourites to win the group and with world stars such as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and attackers Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, the Irish team will need to be on top form to get a result. However, Belgium’s defeat at the hands of Wales in the qualifying campaign last June suggests there is a weak underbelly in this side when teams are compact and get in their faces.
The loss of defender Vincent Kompany to injury will be at a huge cost, but with Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen and Spurs pairing Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderwiereld in reserve, Belgium are well equipped to deal with their captain’s absence. Meanwhile, the midfield consists of Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, who both chip in with their fair share of goals, accumulating six between them during qualification.
But, even with the embarrassment of riches in their squad, there are still questions to be answered by the Belgians having yet to prove they can excel together on the biggest stage. Failure to win their opening match against Italy will see these uncertainties elevated further.
TEAM STAT: Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne both scored five goals each during qualification
Manager: Antonio Conte
Star Player: Gigi Buffon
World Ranking: 12
Previous best: Winners (1968)
Tournament odds: 16/1
After a disappointing World Cup display in 2014, Italy will be desperate to atone for their failings this time around in France. Undefeated in qualifying, the Italians will, as always, be a difficult unit to breakdown as they look to hit teams on the counter-attack, which means Martin O’Neill’s men will have to be conscious of over committing.
As ever, Juventus’ Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini will provide the experience and defensive backbone to the side with Southampton striker Graziano Pelle hoping for a fruitful tournament in front of goal.
The Azzurri may not have the panache of an Alessandro Del Piero or Francesco Totti anymore but they still present a well drilled outfit with a cute nous of winning matches at big tournaments, reflected in the European Championships four years ago, when they unexpectedly reached the final.
However, with manager Antonio Conte having already publicised his switch join Chelsea after the Euros, it remains to be seen whether the revelation will have an impact on the Italian team ahead of the tournament’s start. But whatever occurs, Ireland will still need a much improved performance from that seen in Euro 2012, when they were dispatched comprehensively 2-0 in the group game by the Italians.
TEAM STAT: Italy conceded only seven goals during 10 matches in qualification