Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

The Republic of Ireland's hopes are on knife-edge in Euro 2016: Martin O'Neill

If we switch off against Belgium we're doomed: O'Neill

By Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill has warned his players that a repeat of the casual spell that cost Republic of Ireland three points on Monday could have disastrous implications against Belgium today.

But the 64-year-old believes that his team have the collective strength to surprise a side that he views as potential winners of the competition if they can maintain concentration levels.

In addition to the threat presented by the highest-ranked side in the tournament, the Republic will also have to cope with a pitch that is cutting up due to heavy rain levels that have affected the surface at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux with O'Neill closely inspecting some problematic areas during his team's warm-up session last night.

"If we don't get a result, it won't be through lack of endeavour," said the former Northern Ireland skipper, who was asked for parallels with the win over Germany last October but ended up referencing the draw with Sweden at the Stade de France.

"These are big games for us and we have to be ready for them.

"We can't afford 15-20-minute spells where we fall into a lull, particularly against these sides who have a lot of talent at their disposal.

"Belgium are very talented, their players are all at the top level of club football and they might look at us and feel some of our players aren't at the same level.

"Individually, if they went on to win the competition it wouldn't be a major surprise.

"They may think they have an advantage, but it doesn't always work out like that.

"I think our team have drawn great strength from the way they played on Monday."

By contrast, top seeds Belgium are under fire because of how they performed in their loss to Italy later that evening.

The authority of manager Marc Wilmots has been questioned, and he is contemplating making sweeping changes with Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne one of those under threat.

Liverpool's Christian Benteke is expected to come into the side ahead of Romelu Lukaku with Belgium badly in need of three points.

Italy's win over Sweden means they will top the group unless the Republic win their remaining two matches.

Antonio Conte plans to rotate his team for the Lille date with O'Neill's side next Wednesday but the Republic camp believe they are capable of shaping their own destiny.

Meanwhile, Belgium's Thibaut Courtois has played down reports of a blazing row with coach Wilmots in the wake of their defeat by Italy.

The Chelsea goalkeeper was said to have been involved in a "furious altercation" with Wilmots and criticised the tactics after the world's second-ranked side found themselves at the foot of Group E following a 2-0 loss to the Italians. However, Courtois moved to defuse the situation as he spoke to the media yesterday.

Courtois said: "We're all winners, you want to win a game and I was a little bit frustrated after the match. Perhaps we didn't do what we need to do in that game, but we must learn the necessary lessons.

"It was constructive criticism and we have worked on it as a team, and we need a positive result tomorrow as a team."

Wilmots has had to contend with suggestions that he has lost the dressing room, with a squad packed with individual talent having failed to make an impression against Italy.

However, the 47-year-old was at pains to point out that heated discussions in adversity are the norm in football before insisting that ultimately he would be making the decisions.

Wilmots said: "I gave my opinion to the players, they then gave their opinions and then we trained. That's normal at football."

Belfast Telegraph