Even the most ardent Republic of Ireland fan will concede that there is a significant talent disparity between their side and the one it will come up against in Bordeaux on Saturday. Yet, after the opening round of matches in Group E at Euro 2016, the narrative surrounding Ireland’s clash with a Belgium side ranked second in the FIFA rankings has altered considerably.
Ireland, the perennial underdogs in major competitions, when it makes it there at all, showed it very much belonged at these Euros in dictating the play for much of its match with Sweden. In Wes Hoolahan, it has a player of real technical quality, too, emphasized by a superb finish to open the scoring.
Drawn in one of the tougher groups in France, Ireland was always facing a tough battle to progress and two points surrendered through a Ciaran Clark own goal could yet prove pivotal. But the mood around the side will have improved considerably a few hours later at seeing the performance its next opponent, the top seeds in the group, Belgium, put in against Italy.
Incoherent and listless , Belgium went down to a 2-0 defeat that placed immediate pressure on the team, and coach Marc Wilmots, even in a competition where only eight of the 24 teams will be eliminated before the knockout phase.
Given those two opening performances, then, could Ireland even be favorites for Saturday’s encounter?
“I think you’ve been drinking,” was the colorful response from Ireland’s always-quotable assistant coach Roy Keane when a Belgian journalist suggested that the tables had flipped between the two sides.
It would be foolish to place Ireland, a team who started two players who were playing in England’s second tier last season and two others who are set to be there next season, as favorites against a Belgian team containing star names like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and several others. Yet there is plenty of reason for Ireland to be far from overawed by the challenge.
“It’s strange how the UEFA and FIFA rankings pan out,” Keane added in his press conference, “but when you walk onto the pitch you don’t think in terms of rankings, you just think of your own performance. We believe if we can play well there’s a good chance we can get a result; if we’re not at it there’s a good chance we’ll get beaten. I think I said exactly the same last week. Rankings? Trust me, over the next day or two we won’t be talking about rankings. There won’t be any fear factor. It’s our job to make sure there’s not.”
In making it to Euro 2016, Ireland showed once again that it is a team that can be more than a sum of its parts and rise to the challenge when going up against sides with superior ability. That was particularly evident in taking four points from two games against world champions Germany, including a famous 1-0 win in Dublin last October.
In contrast, Belgium continues to be some way less than the sum of its parts. Other than a lack of full-backs that continues to flummox Wilmots, Belgium has an extraordinarily gifted talent pool. Against Italy it chose to leave Atlético Madrid’s Champions League final scoring winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and one of the Premier League’s best midfielders last season, Mousa Dembele, on the bench.
The ability of the players is not in question. There may be some doubts can be expressed about the characters of some members of the squad, indeed it was Keane who famously described Hazard as a “spoilt child” during work as a pundit earlier this year. However, by far the largest share of the blame must rest with the coach.
After the defeat to Italy, it appears to increasingly be dawning on Belgians that they are wasting the so-called “Golden Generation” with a coach who simply isn’t up to scratch. Wilmots was able to come away from the 2014 World Cup with credit after guiding the country to the last eight for the first time since 1986, despite his side playing throughout as if it had the handbrake on.
Now, though, with many of its squad moving into their primes, Belgium is expected to show it can truly compete for a major international title. Instead, under Wilmots, it appears no closer to doing that.
The former Belgium national team forward could not have wished for a worse opening game to show up his inadequacies than against Italy. It may be the least talented Italy side in half a century, but it has a coach in Antonio Conte who prepares his teams down to the last detail. In contrast, Belgium appeared a team thrown out onto the pitch with the bare minimum of tactical instruction.
And the influence Wilmots did impart on the side was highly questionable, choosing the sometime ungainly effective, but never exactly nimble or fluid Marouane Fellaini to play in the pivotal No. 10 role. Changes look sure to arrive. And, while Belgium wouldn’t be eliminated with a loss, another failure for Wilmots would surely push him closer to the exit.
Republic of Ireland
Prediction: Against Italy, Belgium showed no sign of progress from the last World Cup, remaining a talented team playing without any direction. Given the ability the team possesses, it can, as was shown late on in its first match, still hurt teams in spite of the shortcomings. Ireland, though, will present an unwelcome challenge. Martin O’Neill’s team will surely look to frustrate the opposition, as Wales did when keeping out Belgium for 180 minutes in the sides’ two qualifiers. And, while the injured Jonathan Walters will be a miss, Ireland can still prosper on the counter-attack from the man who delivered the 1-0 win over Germany: Shane Long.
Predicted Score: Ireland 1-0 Belgium
Kickoff Time: 9 a.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN