Game of the Day: Belgium vs. Republic of Ireland, Bordeaux, 14:00
Following Italy’s last gasp winner against Sweden, this generation of Irish players may never have a better chance of progressing to the knockout rounds of a major tournament. Martin O’Neill will hope that Belgium are as discombobulated in Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon as they were when wilting against the compact yet deadly Italians in game one.
Much of Ireland’s hopes will rest on Shane Long’s tireless running to stretch the play and his general sense of menace could be of concern for as yet unconvincing Belgian defence shorn of Vincent Kompany’s leadership. Wes Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick will need to be on top of their game if they are to replicate the zest of their first half performance against Sweden, rather than the lethargy of the second when Glen Whelan appeared to age by around 5 years in 45 minutes.
What of Belgium? Could they be the ‘new’ England with their squad of Champions League regulars: garlanded with domestic honours yet unable to add up to the sum of their parts when it matters at international level? Much of the blame has understandably been placed at the door of Marc Wilmots and while the criticism is probably fair, it did Wilmots no favours to have his team shown up by a potentially workmanlike Italian, unexpectedly transformed by one of the best coaches in Europe.
With the options within the squad available, surely Belgium must make changes. Both Didier Deschamps and our very own ‘Gambler’ Roy have avoided potentially hazardous results by being bold. As under Van Gaal, blonde bombshell Marouane Fellaini remains a favourite for his national team manager but he, Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan did not perform in the opening game. Fellaini is undoubtedly the most dangerous afro-ed battering ram in Group E, but those watching England’s top division this season would surely agree that Moussa Demebele could add some much needed fluidity to the side. Meanwhile the continued selection of Romelu Lukaku over Divock Origi would result in raised eyebrows across the continent.
For the Irish, a single point would give credibility to the theory that three draws would be enough to scrape through, but if they are prepared to push for a win, then qualification and a last 16 match against a misfiring Portugal could be their reward. For Belgium, it is time to show their class; if they are lacking in lustre then surely serial winners O’Neill and Keane will have Ireland primed to take advantage.
Andrew Grillo, The Sweeper Football Blog