Martin O'Neill must throw caution to wind in Republic of Ireland's all or nothing contest against Italy
Before and after Republic of Ireland's defeat to Belgium in Bordeaux on Saturday, Martin O'Neill hinted he had been hoping to progress to the second stage of the back of three draws.
That, he reflected quietly, was no longer an option. As Shane Long said, after another frustrating afternoon chasing lost causes as a lone forward: "This is a tough result to take, but it puts us in the position of going into the Italy game knowing we need to win. It is all or nothing for us."
Knowing the task in hand is one thing, achieving it is another. There is a reason O'Neill was hoping to progress a point at a time. Ireland have won only three of their 21 matches at World Cups and European Championships. One of them was against Italy, in New Jersey in 1994. Another was against England, at Euro 88. The goalscorer in both matches, Ray Houghton, was the subject of a two-page spread in L'Equipe this weekend, but if that offers an omen for Irishmen seeking straws the harsh reality is the last team Ireland beat at this level was Saudi Arabia, and that was 14 years ago.
"It is not the end of the world," said keeper Darren Randolph. "We had a good performance in the first game, we played well in the first half today, now we have to fight." Long added: "We have a good record against big teams, and we have done well against Italy. Hopefully they will rest a few players."
They will, coach Antonio Conte has already said as much after sealing top spot in Group E. However, that 'good record' needs putting in perspective. Since Houghton's famous goal Ireland have played Italy six times, winning one, losing two.
That is to be expected. Italy have better players. Their team this year is built on a core from Juventus, winners of Serie A five seasons on the trot and Champions League semi-finalists in that time. Ireland's starting XI against Belgium had three players relegated from the Premier League last season, two who just survived, and two who played in the Championship. Only Long, Randolph and Glenn Whelan played for teams that finished in the top ten, and the keeper spent most of the campaign on West Ham's bench.
O'Neill said he had to set aside this disparity when approaching matches against the likes of Belgium and Italy. The players, obviously, cannot dwell on it either. Robbie Brady, one of the relegated trio, said against all evidence, "we've got a lot of matchwinners in this team and hopefully someone can step up with the goods for the Italy game."
The truth is Ireland do not have an exceptional player, a Gareth Bale or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The nearest they have had in recent years is Robbie Keane but at this level he is now mostly playing from memory. Instead they rely on organisation, hard work, and fortune. Against Belgium they fell short on two counts. Long should have had a penalty before Romelu Lukaku scored Belgium's first, and after that goal they lost their shape seeking an equaliser.
"Conceding the first goal the way we did was a big disappointment, and then we've been naive to go chasing goals," admitted Brady. "I wouldn't say recklessly, but maybe not being box-smart, and it was too late by the time we tried to get hold of the game."
As for the penalty Long said: "I can't say what I want to say as I may get myself in trouble, but it is disappointing, anywhere else on the pitch we might get a free kick. The fact they went and broke and scored as well makes it harder to take. The ref obviously thought there was nothing there, though I can't really say what he was thinking as the pictures speak for themselves."
Ireland beat Germany in qualifying and they have a chance against Italy, especially if Conte rests the near-impregnable Juventus back three. "It is the biggest game of our lives," said Brady. Win and it will also be the most memorable.