The Republic of Ireland will be aiming to channel the spirit of its qualifying win over world champion Germany it goes into what is a must-win game against Italy at Euro 2016. After the crushing disappointment of a 3-0 loss to Belgium on Saturday, Ireland goes into the final round of games in Group E bottom of the section on a solitary point. A draw against an already qualified Italian side could be enough to finish third if Sweden suffer a heavy loss to Belgium. Yet because of the emphatic margin of its defeat to Belgium, two points would not be sufficient to take Ireland through as one of the four best third-placed teams.
A repeat of Ireland’s famous 1-0 upset win over Germany in Dublin last October to help secure qualification is required to avoid a tournament that started with such promise ending, just as in Euro 2012, with a swift exit. That seemed an unlikely possibility when Ireland went 1-0 up against Sweden in its opening match. In a tournament where one win may well be enough to qualify for the last 16, Ireland was in control and looking well on its way to securing three points. But the goal, a fine strike from Wes Hoolahan, led to Ireland retreating into its shell, encouraging a previously lifeless Sweden side, which grabbed a share of the points with an equalizer from Ciaran Clark.
Still, Martin O’Neill’s side went into its second match with plenty of cause for optimism against a Belgium that had lost meekly to Italy and was reportedly engulfed in infighting between players and coach Marc Wilmots. But Ireland failed to push at any cracks within the Belgium side, putting in a passive display highlighted by defensive mistakes on all three goals in a 3-0 defeat.
As the Republic of Ireland attempts to pick up the pieces and salvage a last 16 place, O’Neill is expected to make a number of changes to his starting lineup. Clark and James McCarthy both could be dropped after their mistakes led to the goals against Belgium, while there has also been talk of striker Shane Long and even the man who captained Ireland in its first two games, John O’Shea, dropping out. Richard Keogh, Stephen Quinn, Shane Duffy and Daryl Murphy are in contention to come into the starting lineup, with Jonathan Walters, ruled out through injury against Belgium, unlikely to be passed fit.
Looking for inspiration to rebound from the Belgium loss, Ireland can call upon its famous 1-0 victory over Italy at the 1994 World Cup at a packed Meadowlands in New Jersey. O’Neill, though, is keen to use a more recent example of Ireland’s ability to upset the odds.
“I think we’ve got our own recent memories to inspire us, none more so than the night in October when we beat the world champions,” O’Neill said in his pre-match press conference. “We beat the world champions on a night when we had to win. That was an extraordinary, extraordinary result. That was a great moment for us.
“I said that that was inspirational enough for us to go and beat Bosnia over the two games in the playoff matches. I think that we don’t have to go back to ’94, we can just draw on that recent one, because it’s the set of players that did it. And it’s that set of players that gave us the opportunity to come here. And as much as we’ve enjoyed the days that we’ve been here, we’d like to stay a little longer.”
Ireland may also take comfort from the fact that Italy are expected to field a much-changed lineup, with not only qualification but top spot in the group already confirmed. Arriving at Euro 2016 to little fanfare with a squad that many rate as the worst the country has taken to a major tournament in 50 years, Italy has already raised modest expectations.
In in its opening game against Belgium, Italy and coach Antonio Conte showed that a more talented side can be defeated with shrewd preparation and tactics and an excellent defense, marshaled by captain Gianluigi Buffon. While the performance was less impressive against Sweden, a late goal from Brazilian-born forward Eder was enough to win the points for Italy.
Now, in an effort to keep his squad fresh and avoid injuries and suspensions, Conte could make as many as nine changes to his starting lineup. Antonio Candreva is definitely out with a hamstring injury, while Buffon could also sit on the sidelines after being struck down with a virus. There could well be a new-look attack with Ciro Immobile partnering Juventus’ Simone Zaza and potentially Roma’s Stephan El Shaarawy making his first appearance of the competition coming in on the flank.
Prediction: It is unlikely to greatly enhance Ireland’s chances if Italy does indeed drastically rotate its lineup. Those players who do come into the team will be motivated by the knowledge that, particularly in a midfield and attack that has few big names, a strong performance could earn them a starting berth in the knockout phase. For Ireland to have any chance it has to ensure that its performance is dramatically improved from what it offered up against Belgium. There must be doubts about whether some of O’Neill’s rumored changes will help achieve that goal and it could be an early exit for the boys in green.
Predicted score: Italy 1-1 Republic of Ireland
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN