For Ireland to reach the knockout stages at Euro 2016 they must achieve something they haven’t done in 28 years – win a game at the European Championship.
Martin O’Neill’s team face an Italian side already guaranteed victory in Group E and manager Antonio Conte is likely to field many of his reserves, but it remains to be seen if Ireland can end their long winless streak in this must-win game.
Group rivals Sweden and Belgium meet at the same time, with the Swedes aiming to finish second in the group by beating the side who hammered Ireland 3-0 last time out.
But Ireland could also take that spot behind Italy if they win and pip Sweden on goal difference. An Irish victory and a draw between Belgium and Sweden could also see Ireland through as a third-placed team.
“We have a really great game against Italy to look forward to, to put our immediate disappointment to the side, and if we can win this game we give ourselves an incredible chance of qualification,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane will take a late decision on whether winger Jonathan Walters, who missed the Belgium drubbing due to a recurrence of an Achilles injury, will play.
“If there is any chance he (Walters) thinks he can get through it he will have a go, even if we thought we could get Walters on the pitch for an hour it would be fantastic,” Keane told reporters at the Irish team’s training camp in Versailles.
It’s a long time since Ireland managed such a heroic feat at the Euros, and the return of the talismanic Walters would give their chances a serious boost.
The Irish won their first-ever game at the Euro finals, beating rivals England 1-0 on June 12, 1988 in one of their most famous victories.
Since then they have only qualified for the finals once – their disastrous Euro 2012 campaign under Giovanni Trapattoni, when they lost to Croatia, Spain and Italy to become the first team eliminated.
Four years on there was enough in the first hour of their 1-1 draw against Sweden to suggest that they could upset a few teams, but the Belgium defeat brought expectations crashing back down to earth.
Nor can they expect any favours from Italy, with Azzurri midfielder Marco Parolo telling the Irish they won’t be taking it easy on them.
“To end the group stage with nine points would be extra proof of our strength and character,” he said yesterday.
“We want all three points.”
Parolo, who was in the squad when Italy were knocked out in the first round of the 2014 World Cup, is playing in his first European Championship, a competition he believes is very tight.
“There are no longer weak teams and it’s very tactical. Almost every player who is here plays in big leagues,” he said.
It is, however, teamwork that will make the difference.
“Perhaps the fact that we don’t identify ourselves around a single player is an advantage,” Parolo said.
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