Monday 22 January 2018

It's time for Ireland to take off the shackles

Weird Wide World of Sport

Dave Devereux

Ireland's Wes Hoolahan in action against Axel Witsel of Belgium
Ireland's Wes Hoolahan in action against Axel Witsel of Belgium

Ireland's feeble effort against Belgium on Saturday has to be up there with the most depressing viewing involving an Irish team in recent years, certainly on a par with the rugby team's World Cup capitulation against Argentina.

For a while I thought I had stumbled into a torturous time machine and been transported back through the ages.

Not quite back to the era of the Pterodactyl, but four years to our painful Euros flop under the dinosaur-type tutelage of Giovanni Trapattoni with his prehistoric, bypass midfield at all costs, methods.

Like during our hammering at the hands of sizzling Spain in Poland in 2012, the beleaguered fans still managed to belt out The Fields of Athenry with great gusto, when what was unfolding before them was harder to watch than a Fair City omnibus.

The parallels are certainly there with our last European Championships nightmare, with us again facing Italy in our final group game, although this time around the expansion to a 24-team tournament means we still have a concrete chance of progressing should we forge an unlikely win against the Italians.

Reflecting on Saturday's no-show, the truth is Belgium are a far better footballing side than us, with players that are a good few rungs further up the ladder than anything Ireland has to offer, but professionals, at whatever level, should at least have the ability to string four or five passes together, if only to briefly take the pressure off the overworked defence.

It you're going to primarily play for a 0-0 draw, with the flickering hope of snatching a goal on the break or from a set-piece, the least you need is to show a bit of guile and nous.

Surely it would be more prudent to deploy a defensive set-up where players try to keep hold of the ball without committing too many men forward, and still maintaining their shape.

If little Iceland with their 'small mentality' can do it against Ronaldo's mighty Portugal, surely we can manage it against Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku and the likes.

The pattern was as clear and garish as 1970s wallpaper from the first whistle and it was as inevitable as a Raheem Sterling stray pass that Ireland were eventually going to get picked off like an over-ripe Wexford strawberry.

Before a ball was kicked in the tournament I, like many others, believed a win against an average Sweden side in our opening game was paramount to our hopes of progressing from the group, and ultimately the two points dropped against the Scandinavians could well prove to be our downfall.

Of course, all is not lost just yet, and as Ireland showed when toppling world champions Germany, they are capable of pulling off an unlikely victory when all and sundry have penned the obituaries, so putting Italy to the sword is not completely beyond them.

The Italians are already safely through to the knockout stages and will be resting a few players, but whether that is to our advantage or not remains to be seen.

Squad players will be doing their utmost to impress manager Antonio Conte, trying to force their way into the side in the latter stages of the tournament, so they'll hardly be rolling over like playful puppies waiting for their bellies to be tickled.

With an attacking mindset you'd never know what might happen, but if we are headed for the exit door, prising off the shackles and bowing out with a bang rather than a whimper could go a long way to restoring my faith in the Irish management team.

Another toothless display like the one against Belgium would leave me thinking that trawling through the Fair City back catalogue mightn't be such a bad option after all.

Wexford People

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