The Green Army rock-up to their first consecutive Championships, after an erratic qualifying campaign which saw them achieve an improbable win over Germany on home soil. However, the Boys in Green were left in dismay after a defeat to neighbouring rivals Scotland and then in their final group game, a decisive fixture versus Poland to decide the final automatic qualification spot. They did everything but win, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat in a wet and windy Warsaw, meaning they had to face a play-off if they were to stand any chance of qualifying. Despite coming under heavy scrutiny, manager Martin O’Neill masterminded a smash and grab away in Bosnia before comfortably trumping the ‘Golden Lilies’, 2-0 in Dublin.
They Irish will have to deal with the precarious ‘Group of Death’ tag placed upon them, as they contend with some of Europe’s elite footballing nations. A whole host of fresh, young Belgian talent, much of which from the Premier League, can look almost unstoppable on paper. But are they all talk? In contrast, an inspiring Italy are looking to reclaim continental glory for the first time in 48 years. But whilst they possess a pool of magnificent midfield maestros, an ageing backline, no strangers to bewilderment under their complex tactical system, is a likely frailty for Ireland to exploit. Finally, Scandinavia’s finest, Sweden, will be relying on veteran forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic to do the business. In potentially his last Euros, the 34-year old is set to carry a team of youthful inexperience and misfiring misfits, but shouldn’t be underestimated.
The Irish have a wealth of experience in their ranks, with many players over 30 but Southampton’s Shane Long is the talismanic figurehead for them. Playing as a complete forward, he may only have netted 3 times in qualifying but his commitment and creative contribution is an unquestionable epicentre of Ireland’s success as ever-present captain Robbie Keane continues to fade into historic folklore.