Industrious Ireland get ready to face ‘the legend’
Scots watch on as Martin O’Neill’s men take on Ibrahimovic and co in opener
LET’S be honest. The last three days haven’t exactly been a barrel of laughs for anyone with a See-You-Jimmy hat in their possession.
Like the unpopular kid who is the only one in school not invited to Charlene McClatchy’s epic 16th birthday house party, Scotland have been left watching on from afar nursing a bruised ego while Gladys Knight’s It Should Have Been Me plays like some soul-crushing lament in the background.
As we all sit about wondering why does it always rain on us, Day No.4 of this summer’s Euro 2016 tournament offers the sharpest dunt yet to the Scots home guard. In their first match of Group E, the Republic of Ireland kick off their campaign taking on Sweden.
Not enough days have trundled by that will make the sight of Martin O’Neill’s team stride out at the Stade de France. Indeed, it was exactly one year ago to the day that Scotland faced up to the Irish at the Aviva Stadium, taking home a point that many thought at the time would be enough to put the Scots halfway to the finals.
In hindsight, that result and a defeat to Georgia proved our undoing as the Republic did enough to squeeze through with Poland. Now they are there, O’Neill is keen to take a pragmatic approach to proceedings. Having seen off one home nation in qualifying, the Republic of Ireland manager is happy to take inspiration from another.
“It was interesting to hear comments coming from the Welsh camp,” said the former Celtic manager. “They thought that if they didn’t win the first game they weren’t out of it. They’ve given themselves a great chance but they’re also saying they still have work to do and that’s exactly the way I would feel about it. I’m sure that Sweden will be targeting us in the sense that they feel that if they could win this game against us it gives them a great chance, but we must feel the same way.”
As Scotland saw for themselves, the Irish are not blessed with a Gareth Bale but their longevity, fitness and ability to grind out results was the key characteristic to their qualifying campaign. Their ability to do that is founded upon a solid base of their defence, which is increasingly becoming marshalled by former Motherwell goalkeeper Darren Randolph.
Now at West Ham, the 29-year-old has not only filled the breach by an injured Shay Given but has shown just why he is one of the most promising keepers in the Premier League. Indeed, it was his clean sheet – and assist through a long hoof up the park – that helped the Republic claim a 1-0 win over Germany back in October to all but put them through.
The man whose father Ed was a professional basketball player is now ready to catch the opportunity to establish himself as his country’s first choice.
“When I left Charlton for Motherwell in 2010 it was because I had to get my name out there again. You have to push yourself to improve,” said the man who spent three season at Fir Park. “Had I stayed at Charlton, I would have coasted along. As it was, I stayed there too long. You learn lessons from life and the lesson I discovered was that you have to leave your comfort zone if you want to progress.”
On the other side of the camp, it is perhaps not much of a surprise that there is an air of bullishness about Sweden’s chances of progression from a Group E also containing Italy and Belgium.
It may have taken a play-off decider against Denmark for the Swedes to be in France, but with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the apex of their attack the sense of self-confidence coursing through the team is understandably high.
At the centre of that is the man himself. He may be 34-years-old but Ibrahimovic has just brought the curtain down on a sensational final season with PSG by securing the league title, scoring 38 goals allowing the way. He has been even more formidable in the yellow of his country, scoring in nine of his last 11 outings.
“I feel really strong. I’m getting better with every year that passes,” said the man who is rumoured to be on his way to Manchester United after the summer. “I feel really good. It’s all about learning and developing new things. I have the hunger to become a better player.
“That’s when I feel I have accomplished something when I learn new things. I have worked hard on the pitch and didn’t just sit down and do nothing.
“The legend can still deliver.”
LESSONS: Ireland keeper Darren Randolph says move to Motherwell from Charlton helped his career