Lille (France) (AFP) – The Republic of Ireland can take inspiration from one of the finest moments in their footballing history as they face Italy in Euro 2016 on Wednesday.
Ireland come into their final game in Group E in Lille with a single point. They know that anything less than a win will end their hopes of reaching the knockout phase.
Italy have already clinched qualification for the last 16 as group winners, having won their opening two matches, a fact that could play into the hands of Martin O’Neill’s side as they attempt to bounce back from a 3-0 defeat to Belgium.
And it was inevitable that references would now be made to the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when the Irish famously beat Italy 1-0 thanks to a Ray Houghton strike to claim what remains their only competitive win over the Azzurri.
“It’s been done before. It’s not an impossible mission,” Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane said at the team’s base in Versailles, near Paris, when asked if he felt the memory of that game was relevant.
“We have beaten the Germans (in qualifying) in the last year. I appreciate the negativity in the last few days but this team has bounced back before and I’ve no doubt we’ll bounce back on Wednesday with a good performance.
“That doesn’t guarantee we’ll win but if our energy levels are higher, we cut out the individual mistakes, a few decisions go your way, then you’ve got a chance.”
Houghton, who was born in Scotland, recently told French sports daily L’Equipe that he has even fonder memories of scoring the only goal when Ireland beat England 1-0 at the 1988 Euros.
That remains Ireland’s only win in the European Championship finals, with their poor record since including a 2-0 loss to the Italians in their last group game of Euro 2012 in Poland.
– Italy changes –
Italy coach Antonio Conte — whose team beat Belgium 2-0 and Sweden 1-0 — should make sweeping changes to his starting XI with one eye on their last-16 tie against the Group D runners-up at the Stade de France next Monday.
One of those alterations is likely to see Salvatore Sirigu start in goal in place of veteran Gianluigi Buffon, who is one booking away from a suspension and has been struggling with illness.
But Keane warned: “I don’t think tactically they’ll change from their previous couple of games, just because of the way they’re set up.
“I’ve seen them a number of times — well organised, they clearly love to defend. They’ve got good options off the bench if they are going to rotate.”
If Ireland win, they could still finish second, provided Belgium lose to Sweden in Nice and the Irish overturn their goal difference deficit to the side captained by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Otherwise the best they can hope for is to go through as one of the four best third-placed sides.
With top spot sewn up, Italy need not worry about such things as fringe players prepare for a run-out.
Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi believes the match at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy — where the terrible state of the pitch is cause for concern — will allow the Azzurri to showcase their depth of quality.
“We don’t have a (Eden) Hazard, or an Ibrahimovic, who are stars of international football. We’ve got other characteristics that maybe more illustrious sides don’t have, and that is a great group,” De Rossi said.
“The fact that they have all the motivation in the world and we have less could be a problem, but it shouldn’t be.”
Midfielder Antonio Candreva returned to training on Monday after being troubled by a groin problem. Ireland are waiting to see whether forward Jon Walters, who has been struggling with an achilles injury, will be ready.
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