Ireland face tough Euro 2016 group


After all of the celebratory drinks were finished, hangovers cleared and the back-slapping had ended, the reality of reaching the Euro 2016 tournament in France became evident after the draw was made last month for the group stages of the competition.

With Ireland having been placed in the bottom pot of teams to be drawn, they knew that they would face a series of difficult fixtures against some of the best international teams in Europe if they were to progress into the knockout stages of the tournament.

Martin O’Neill’s men didn’t get the rub of the green and have been drawn against Italy, Belgium and Sweden in their group. The teams are drawn from pots depending on their rankings and seedings, which saw Belgium being placed in pot one and strangely, Italy coming from pot two – meaning Ireland really did get a raw deal when the group was being drawn as the Italians could well have been a team in pot one.

Ireland are familiar foes for the Italians, having been in the same group as them at Euro 2012. Unfortunately for the boys in green, this last meeting certainly wasn’t a memorable one, with Italy cruising to a comfortable 2-0 victory as Ireland left the tournament with no points and only one goal to show for their endeavours.

Fixtures between Ireland and Belgium are few and far between, but the most memorable series of games between the two sides was when they met in the play-offs to qualify for the 1998 World Cup – ironically being held in France – with the Belgians coming out on top.

Much like Ireland, Sweden qualified for Euro 2016 via the play-off route where they defeated Denmark in order to claim their spot, thanks to their enigmatic talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is going to be a thorn in the side of the Irish defence when he plays against them next June.

Ireland and Sweden faced each other in the 2014 World Cup qualifying group, with the boys in green failing to defeat the Swedes over their two games, losing in Dublin 2-1 and drawing 0-0 away in Stockholm.

Ireland will be able to see Ibrahimovic in the flesh in their first fixture in Euro 2016 when they face Sweden in the Stade De France in Paris on Monday 13th June at 5.00pm. They then head to the South West of France when they take on Belgium in Bordeaux on

Saturday 18th June at 2pm before heading back to Northern France to play Italy in Lille on Wednesday 23rd June at 8pm.

Looking at the fixtures, it’s most certainly a tough group for Ireland. Whether it’s insurmountable is a debatable aspect. With the expanded tournament now consisting of 24 teams, it means only eight teams will drop out after the group stages, which now gives teams the added incentive that finishing third could well give them a chance to progress as well into the second round.

This means that the game against Sweden is a vital encounter as a victory in this fixture for Ireland and a draw against either Italy or Belgium could see them through – depending on how other results go.

The top seeds in the group are Belgium – as well as the number one ranked team in the world – who possess a wealth of talent, including the likes of Kevin De Bruyen, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.

They made it to the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and two years down the line, will provide Ireland with their sternest test in recent years when they face off in Bordeaux. You would have to be realistic and look to trying to achieve a draw in this game, which would be an absolutely fantastic result. A hefty defeat could well have serious ramifications.

It would be great if by the time Ireland get to the final fixture against Italy that there is something still to play for. In reality, that could be battling for third place, but one unexpected victory by any team in the group could throw it wide open.

Speaking after the draw was made, Manager Martin O’Neill said: “It could not have been tougher for us. I think Italy should have really been in pot one, then we have the top-ranked team and Sweden to boot.

“I thought I was going to enjoy the draw, but now I am not sure I have done. But I will get my head around it and focus on the job after Christmas. In terms of travelling, we’re not going to have too far to go so that’s a positive for us and the fact that we’re going to have two games in Northern France (Lille and Paris) will mean that our fans will travel in their tens of thousands to come and cheer us on, which is going to be fantastic.

“I’d rather have these headaches than being sat at home watching or doing some television work so, we’ll start our planning in terms of friendly games and training plans. This is also now an opportunity for those in the side, or on the fringes to up their games so they’re ready for when the tournament starts. It’s going to be a great occasion and I’m looking forward to it.”

O’Neill, whose team qualified by beating Bosnia-Herzegovina in the play-offs, added: “Sweden is a game to look forward to, so let’s go for it. They are not a one-man team, although Ibrahimovic has been a top class player.

“I watched Sweden in the play-off games and they were quite strong. We will take time out to study opposition players so that by the time of the games we know everything about them.”

After the fixtures were released, it was decided that Ireland would base themselves in Versailles for the group stages of the tournament. In terms of distance travelling, Ireland are quite fortunate that they won’t have too much to do other than the trip to Bordeaux, which would only be about a 90-minute flight from Paris.

Lille is an easily commutable distance from their base so whilst the fixtures haven’t been the kindest, the distance Martin O’Neill’s men will need to travel has been.

Ireland will set up camp in the UEFA-approved hotel Trianon Palace, whilst the team will train at AFC Versailles’ Stade de Montbauron. The base got the seal of approval from O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane after they visited the city with FAI CEO John Delaney following the tournament draw.

“The facilities and accommodation in Versailles are second to none, and will cater for every need of the team, management and backroom staff. I visited the area with Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, and both are extremely impressed and looking forward to being based there.”

Keane was involved in an infamous bust-up with then Ireland manager Mick McCarthy back in 2002 over the standard of the Republic’s base in Saipan, but the No 2 has no qualms about putting the players through their paces in the historic city, as Ireland look to emerge from a daunting Group E.

One thing that the bust-up did highlight to the FAI was the need for exceptional facilities for the players to stay and train in, in order to prepare them as best as possible. This has been evidently heeded over the years and Ireland will prepare themselves in Versailles in opulent surroundings ahead of their third European Championship tournament.

Republic of Ireland fixtures (all times BST)

  • Monday, 13 June: Republic of Ireland v Sweden (5pm)
  • Saturday, 18 June: Belgium v Republic of Ireland (2pm)
  • Wednesday, 22 June: Italy v Republic of Ireland (8pm)