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Reasons To Be Positive: How Ireland Can Forget The Horrors Of Belgium To Beat Italy

Reasons To Be Positive: How Ireland Can Forget The Horrors Of Belgium To Beat Italy
By Gavin Cooney
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There is a gorgeous torment to tournament football.

It is an immersive experience in which ten thousand things can go wrong at the expense of the thing that can go right. The thing that can go right is not the Republic of Ireland winning the competition. No, the thing that can go right is Ireland just keep on progressing, so we can continue to ignore the outside world for as long as we can.

A major football tournament in which Ireland compete is the ultimate escapism; the opportunity to put off the banal complexities of life in favour of the safe refuge in three televised games a day. Life during a tournament is just so bloody simple: what matters is that Ireland win and we get whatever combination of results that helps us progress.

That's the gorgeous bit. The torment is the knowledge it is a fragile and ephemeral simplicity; that the whole thing is feckless enough to come to an end.

Tonight Ireland will gamble with elimination from Euro 2016, and it all feels like the last Sunday evening of the summer before the first Monday morning of school. The spectre of Italy brings with it a queer shadow that, should Ireland fail to win, will darken the evening and become a vanguard of the crude intrusion of actual, real life.

The sound of defeat will be less the hammering of sixteen hooves than it will be the theme music to Glenroe.

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Antonio Conte is planning on making "seven to nine changes" to his side for the game, but they will still be a force, with fringe players like Simone Zaza, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Stephan El Shaaraway and Federico Bernardeschi all eager to earn a starting role for the knockout tie with Spain. Mick McCarthy addressed the idea that the Italian side would be weakened by terming the idea as "total bollocks".

Reports yesterday suggested that Martin O'Neill would perform generous surgery on the side cudgelled by Belgium, with Seamus Coleman expected to be the only survivor of the back four. Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh are expected to replace the now-ragged Ciaran Clark and captain John O'Shea (which will sadly deprive this writer of the opportunity to send his long-drafted Liberté, Equalité, O'Shea tweet).

Robbie Brady will revert to left-back, with Stephen Ward trudging back to the bench burdened with the 2 out of ten L'Equipe awarded him for the Belgium game.

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Duffy will add danger offensively at set-pieces, with O'Shea presumably dropped to allow the Irish defensive line push higher up in a bid to go for Italian throats. If Italy can counter with the alacrity they did against Belgium, however, this new Irish defence will feel less a coherent selection policy than it will an improvised prayer.

O'Neill has rightly cited the Germany game as an example of what Ireland can achieve against Italy, and the influence of that game may extend beyond the intangibles. O'Neill is understood to be flirting with playing just one midfielder in the holding role as he did against Germany. That night, James McCarthy excelled in Glenn Whelan's enforced absence.

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Roles are expected to be reversed against Italy, as McCarthy is unfit and should be solely focussed on waking up from his personal nightmare. Stephen Quinn is expected to come into the side, with Jeff Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan the advanced ball players behind a striker whose identity is, as of yet, unknown.

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Darryl Murphy has yet to play a minute of this tournament and has never scored a goal for Ireland, but he is to be of any use, it is from the start as a kind of  uber-mobile battering ram: charging at armoured defences to allow Shane Long step in with a rapier.

It will be vital that Hendrick can get on the ball and Hoolahan can conjure his form from the Swedish game, that numbers can get in support of whoever starts up front, and that Robbie Brady avoids taking a short corner at all costs.

It will also be important that Irish players realise the gravity of the occasion, and that if Italy do break, that nobody repeats McCarthy's and Clark's assault on air in their respective bids to prevent Belgian counter-attacks.

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Above all, Ireland will need to play with the kind of sound and fury that has fashioned Irish history at major tournaments in the past. The mindset against Belgium was passive and ultimately wrong.

In the fiftieth minute, for example, with Ireland trailing 1-0, Eden Hazard tussled with Seamus Coleman on the Belgian left-wing. Hazard wriggled into a quantum of space before slipping over. He then got to his feet unhindered: Coleman had retreated ten yards to assume defensive shape. Ireland will need to be far more proactive against the Italians.

Ireland arrived at Euro 2012 encouraged by faith in the memory of tournaments passed rather than a rational belief in the merits of the team, propelled by the notion that an Irish team had never failed to perform on the big stage when the time arrived. Two weeks later, this faith was rudely expunged, with heavy defeats cauterising in our minds a vision of eternal footballing inferiority.

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The entire tournament was ultimately mocked by the echo of sentiments from previous tournaments, why talk of these vacuous platitudes like 'put 'em under pressure' when the opposition players are so much better than us?

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Ireland must not labour the wounds of 2012, as they did against Belgium, and remember the merits of simply outworking the opposition. While it wasn't enough four years ago, nor was it enough on Monday, it might be enough tomorrow. The gulf in class will be evident later but not as pronounced as Monday or Euro 2012, and the mindset from times gone by might just be enough to take us over the line.

This is what Antonio Conte expects of Ireland. He told the media before the game that "this will be life and death for them, the biggest game of their careers". It's a trite phrase, but he is half-right. 

The result tomorrow won't change how you go to work, how you brush your teeth, how you relax among friends or how you put food on the table. All it can change is your life.

We'll take another week of torment.

See Also: 5 Times Ireland Produced A Huge Performance When Nobody Gave Us A Chance

See Also: Pics: Martin O'Neill Won't Be Too Upset To See That The Pitch In Lille Looks Awful

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