“Ireland favourites? Have you been drinking?!”
What Roy Keane lacks in apprehension, he makes up for in honesty. Ireland’s assistant manager’s response to a pre-match question proved prescient. If Ireland impressed against Sweden, they took two steps backwards in their second game. Only a victory over the impressive Italians will postpone elimination. Was that first 45 minutes against Sweden the height of Ireland’s endeavour?
For long periods of the second half, this felt as miserable as Poland 2012, where even Ireland’s fanatical support failed to find the positives. The pre-match coverage focused on a Belgium side in supposed disarray, but they clicked often and emphatically enough to sweep aside their opposition. Sometimes having significantly better players is sufficient to make the difference. In the second half it was men against boys in green.
Much of the negativity surrounding Belgium was reserved for their chagrined coach Marc Wilmots. After defeat against Italy, Wilmots had at least five of his selection decisions questioned: Was Laurent Ciman good enough to start? Why break up the central defensive partnership of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen that works so well for Tottenham? Does Mousa Dembele not deserve to start? Why play Kevin de Bruyne as a winger and limit his effectiveness? Why not utilise the pace of Dries Mertens or Yannick Carrasco? What use is Marouane Fellaini?
To face Ireland, all but one had been answered. In came Thomas Meunier to replace Ciman, with Carrasco replacing Fellaini to the tune of cheers from almost everyone non-Irish. That meant De Bruyne moving back into the centre, with Dembele also recalled behind him. Only the left-back stone was left unturned.
Belgium’s first-half display was almost disjointed as their miserable fare against Italy. They were reminiscent of the worst aspects of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, pacy players playing without pace. On BeInSport, Ruud Gullit described Belgium’s attacking play as “soulless”; no harmony, cohesion or evident enjoyment. Of their 248 first-half passes, 122 went sideways or backwards.
Unfortunately, Ireland spectacularly failed to take advantage of the Belgian uncertainty. The coaching staff seemed happy to keep the game at 0-0 for as long as possible, but that’s a strategy that sits somewhere between unadventurous and downright foolish. Far too often the ball was hit long to Shane Long, the most thankless of tasks for a striker desperate for support.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a wholly defensive mindset, particularly against better opposition, but it relies on near-perfection from the central defenders. Ciaran Clark and a 35-year-old John O’Shea are many things, but defensive nonpareil they are not. Ireland effectively played Russian roulette until they conceded, and three shots were fired after the break. Romelu Lukaku went from accused fraudster to joint highest goalscorer in the competition in the space of 25 minutes.
Ireland had their moment of regret shortly before Lukaku’s first goal, Alderweireld’s high boot on Long in the penalty area not spotted (or not punished) by referee Cuneyt Cakir. A penalty was probably the right call, but it was hardly stonewall; more like trellis garden fence.
Yet it would be a leap to lay the blame for the missed chances of this tournament at the feet of one man with a whistle. Barring a remarkable result against Italy, Ireland will extend their run of 14 years without a win at a major tournament. That’s testament not only to a safety-first mindset that fell far short of succeeding, but a squad only triumphant when playing far beyond the sum of its parts.
Ireland aimed to succeed through defensive perfection, but it always looked like an ambition built on sand. The unfavourable assessment is that Martin O’Neill’s squad is Wales without the Gareth Bale. Or Aaron Ramsey. Or Ashley Williams.