Mark O’Haire’s Euro 2016 Tips – Italy v Republic Of Ireland
Italy v Rep of Ireland
The mission is simple for the Republic of Ireland – beat Italy in Lille on Wednesday night and the Boys In Green will progress to the Last-16 of Euro 2016.
Italy v Republic of Ireland, Wednesday 22nd June 2016, 20.00, RTE 2 & ITV
Italy’s late 1-0 success over Sweden has assured the Azzurri as Group E winners and head coach Antonio Conte is now preparing to make wholesale changes to his side for the group concluder. So can Ireland take advantage?
These two teams have been regular competitors in recent years. The pair have shared a victory each – as well as three draws – in five meetings since 2010 with Italy’s 2-0 triumph at Euro 2014 the most recent contest.
But Irish eyes will be hoping the 2016 vintage are able to repeat the feat of the 1994 World Cup squad, who famously upset the odds to beat the Italians 1-0.
The Republic have picked up just a solitary success in major tournament finals this millennium – against Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup – but after a promising display in their opening fixture, when they drew 1-1 with Sweden, Martin O’Neill’s outfit fell to a deeply disappointing 3-0 defeat to Belgium.
The Boys In Green failed to force Thibaut Courtois into a single save and Shane Long, operating as a sole striker, found himself isolated for long periods. The Southampton striker made little impact but may feel he should have won a penalty when he was caught by a wild Toby Alderweireld boot inside the Belgium area, just before Romelu Lukaku opened the scoring.
Belgium dominated possession throughout, with Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne proving much more effective at stretching their opponent’s defence.
Pre-match, De Bruyne had suggested the Republic would be one of their toughest opponents because of their physical power. However, an element of that physicality was missing with Jon Walters not deemed fit enough to take his place in the side and it cost the Irish dear in the offensive third.
Against Sweden, the impressive Wes Hoolahan pulling the strings in midfield that day, the Republic were composed on the ball, retaining possession to build attacks before deservedly taking the lead.
But time on the ball was not as forthcoming against Belgium and when they did have possession, Ireland went long. Without Walters’ ability to hold up the ball, it was a fruitless tactic.
Lukaku’s opener did force the Republic to abandon their cautious approach but that in turn left gaps at the back for their increasingly confident opponents to exploit, which they did to full effect. And Ireland limped out having failed to land an effort on-target a major tournament game for the first time since the 1994 World Cup.
Meanwhile, Italy are now unbeaten in their last 12 competitive games since their early departure from 2014 World Cup, included wins in each of their last six.
In their opening group game at Euro 2016, the Azzurri caught the eye as they outfoxed one of the tournament favourites in Belgium with patient and well-organised football.
Italy found joy in that game by getting between Belgium’s lines, quickly turning defence into attack against a side that – while packed with individual talent – looked disjointed.
Conte’s charges, though, had no such luck against a conservative Sweden side, who were content to sit deep. For 88 minutes, the tactic worked but this Italy side is built upon a foundation of being defensively solid and clinical in attack.
The game looked to be heading towards a dull goalless draw before Eder raced onto Simone Zaza’s knockdown to drive home from the edge of the box with just minutes to play. It was only the Azzurri’s second on-target effort.
Prior to the tournament, Italy boss Antonio Conte had played down his side’s chances of success in France, citing an ageing squad and a lack of upcoming talent as reasons for fans to temper their expectations.
Suddenly, Europe’s elite are taking note of the Azzurri but they didn’t convince against Sweden so will their fringe XI really dominate against an Irish side hell-bent on picking up a positive result? I’m not so sure.
Whilst Belgium were happy to take the game to Italy, Conte’s charges will again be expected to initiate control and tempo against the Republic. It’s a situation they’re just overly accustomed to dealing with positively.
Italy failed to enthuse in qualifying when dealt with similar situations – most notably against Malta – and only once in their last 37 internationals have they scored more than twice – against Azerbaijan. That lack of firepower has made them vulnerable to nations that are happy to sit back and defend.
Ten of Italy’s 11 major tournament group-games this decade have featured fewer than three goals so another low-scoring encounter looks likely but with the odds far from appetising on a repeat…
it may pay to put your faith in a narrow and famous Irish success.
Republic of Ireland to win by one goal (7/2)
*Prices correct at time of publication