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Euro 2016: Republic of Ireland have real mountain to climb with Italian job


Draw date: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with his assistant Roy Keane

Draw date: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with his assistant Roy Keane

Getty Images

Draw date: Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill with his assistant Roy Keane

Before he arrived in Paris for Saturday's Euro 2016 draw, Martin O'Neill asserted that he was determined to enjoy Christmas whatever the outcome.

After all, for the smaller nations, the opportunity to be a part of the ceremony at the Palais des Congres was supposed to be a cause for celebration.

When the main event concluded, though, O'Neill didn't look like he was in the mood for a party. The last act, which saw Italy dropped into Group E, transformed the scale of the task ahead from a hill into a mountain. "I think when I get over the initial moroseness, I will be absolutely fine," he said, neatly summarising his thoughts with a dose of humour.

The Ireland boss described sitting next to his assistant Roy Keane during a draw where they knew their location early.

Belgium were a reasonable result from Pot 1, which was drawn out first, but the countdown to deciding the identity of opponents from Pot 3 and Pot 2 built up them up for a fall.

"When we were down to 50-50 (the last two balls in each pot) you were still looking at the sides that, well, you might have chosen," he said. Sweden or Hungary? Italy or Austria?

O'Neill wanted the latter option on both occasions, and was dealt disappointment.

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"Given the luck we've had, I wasn't expecting it," he sighed. "Roy and myself both came here thinking we'd enjoy the draw more than we enjoyed it in Nice (the original qualifying draw) and we didn't.

"It was exactly the same. He used exactly the same language as he did in Nice."

Still, while there were an abundance of pessimistic soundbites, it would be wrong to imply that O'Neill had the gait of a man who was down on his luck.

Rubbing shoulders with luminaries of the world game tends to put a spring in the step of the competing bosses; it really does serve as a reminder of what they would have missed out on by falling short against Bosnia.

Crucially, his players have responded to adversity before, proving that they are capable of making their own luck.

Inevitably, the Italian element prompted comparisons to Euro 2012, an adventure that set a low bar, although it would be a stretch to apply the Group of Death label. Group D, which features Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic and Turkey, takes that dubious honour.

The clear contrast from Poland is that four third-placed sides will make the round of 16, which means that Ireland could well still have a chance of qualifying heading into their final match with Italy even if they've lost the first two. That encounter will bring down the curtain on the group phase, so O'Neill's troops would know the exact threshold for a third-place berth.

Permutations experts had worked out beforehand that a ticket for Group E was the nightmare conclusion as regards plotting a path through the knock-out stage; the runners-up are guaranteed to face a group winner and if one of the third-placed sides comes from Ireland's pool then a round of 16 game with the top side in either France or Spain's group is the reward.