Martin O’Neill’s side, and their legions of fans, now know what awaits for them in France following Saturday night’s Euro 16 draw
They face the daunting prospect of FIFA top ranked side Belgium, alongside historical foe Italy and the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden in Group E. Speaking after the draw O’Neill joked at his assistant manager, Roy Keane’s, reaction.
“Honestly, I must have stopped going to mass. Myself and Roy thought we’d enjoy the draw more than we did in Nice (when they were grouped with world champions Germany for the qualifiers) – but we didn’t. Roy used exactly the same language as he did then, which I can’t repeat!”
He expressed frustration at having landed Italy from Pot Two due to the way the seedings worked.
“It’s tough, Italy are effectively a Pot One team. So we seem to have two Pot One teams in our group. Belgium are considered the best side in the world certainly in terms of their position. Sweden know their way around the block and they have Ibrahimovic as well as a sturdy side. They just seem to know how to qualify and get through so it’s a difficult one for us but we’ll look forward to it.
“I thought I was coming here to enjoy the draw but I’m not so sure that is the case anymore,” he joked. “But I certainly wouldn’t give anything up, certainly not. Chance “There was a pot beside us that each time a 50-50 draw came up and we felt like we had a chance of getting a team, each time it went the other way but I’m quite sure other coaches will think the same thing and we’ve still got a chance.”
Their first match comes against Sweden on June 13, giving the pool’s two minnows a fighting chance of opening a strong campaign and attempt to get through as one of the best third-placed sides.
“The first match is obviously very important for us, very important. We saw in Brazil that teams want to throw off the shackles in the first game, rather than being more cagey, and try to go for it then that will be the case with us,” said O’Neill.
“That mentality is something we will have to be conscious of. I don’t think Sweden will always go direct. I do think they try to build it up a little bit.” Swedish manager Erik Hamren agrees: “It’s going to be really, really interesting because the winner of that game has a really good chance to go further. If you look at it on the basis of the ranking then of course we fight for third place but you have to play on it.
“I want to be number one but you have to see that Belgium and Italy are the favourites. I said before the draw that there is the possibility to have a really tough group, a tough group and an okay group and I think this is a tough one.” In the qualifying stages Ibrahimovic scored 11 of his side’s 19-goal total, but Hamren believes they can show they are more than a one-player side.
“We have just one world-class player but you can do a lot with that too. Zlatan is not playing alone, we have a team that is really strong and works really hard to make him successful.” O’Neill will remember the threat of Ibrahimovic, as they took four points in qualifying two years ago, with ROI’s draw away from home offset by a winner from the Paris Saint- Germain talisman.
Their next game will be against Group E giants Belgium, on June 18, who have catapulted to the top of the FIFA rankings despite last year’s World Cup being their first major competition in 12 years.
Their manager Marc Wilmots does not seem to fear O’Neill’s side stating: “It’s a tough draw, nothing more. Ireland we should be able to beat, Sweden we can also beat. The first match against Italy will be the toughest.”
They then round off the group by facing Italy on June 22, with every football fan remembering the 1990 and 1994 World Cup clashes between the two. Manager Antonio Conte says: “Ireland are certainly a team who play with a lot of emotion.”
Meanwhile Northern Ireland drew world champions Germany, alongside Poland and Ukraine, in Group C. England and Wales will battle it out in Group B alongside Russia and Slovakia.
Ticketing UEFA have already opened up the ticket application process on their website. The deadline to apply is January 18 at 11am, with applicants restricted to apply for a maximum of four tickets each.
Those successful will start to receive notifications from February onwards and those unsuccessful will have another chance of applying after the first round of tickets are allocated.
There are three different ticket types available; Accessibility Tickets, Single Tickets, and Follow My Team Tickets, and four different categories of tickets.