Martin O’Neill will send his Republic of Ireland team out to dent Belgium’s Euro 2016 hopes while insisting he would not be surprised if they eventually lifted the trophy.
Ireland go head-to-head with the Belgians at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux in Group E on Saturday afternoon, with both desperately needing the points even if their ultimate ambitions may be very different.
Marc Wilmots’ men arrived in France having been touted as potential champions, but suffered a setback when they were beaten 2-0 by Italy in their opening game, sparking something of a backlash.
However, O’Neill is wary of a squad packed with individual talent, although he would happily inflict more pain on Wilmots if it meant the Republic making it through to the knockout stage.
The 64-year-old said: “They are very talented, there’s no question about it, no question.
“They all playing big-club football and they would maybe look at us and feel as if some of our players are not playing at the level that they play at every single week, so I think they would feel that they might have an advantage like that. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
“But they are really talented. I have said - and it’s worth repeating - that individually they are as talented as any side playing in this competition, and if they went on to win the competition, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to me.”
O’Neill’s considered response came after he was asked how many Belgians players would make it into his Ireland side.
He smiled as he considered his response, and then said: “There would be a number. How significant that number is will probably depend on tomorrow evening.”
While all appears to be harmonious within the Republic camp, there have been reports of discontent among the Belgian ranks, although O’Neill was not about to allow himself to be carried away by that.
He said: “When you do get individuals as good as Belgium can be, if they don’t win a game they are maybe expected to and there’s talk about friction in the camp at the minute when they don’t beat Italy - Italy are a top-class side, they are a tournament team.
“That game, any one of us in the room might not have been able to call to know what the result might have been.”
O’Neill will be forced to make at least one change from Monday night’s 1-1 draw against Sweden, with Jonathan Walters having succumbed to his Achilles injury.
However, whichever team he sends out, he knows they may well have to hit the heights they did to beat world champions Germany in qualification if they are to prosper in Bordeaux.
He said: “These are big games for us and we really have to be ready for the games. We have to be mentally tuned in, we have to be physically as strong as we possibly can be and we can’t afford 15, 20-minute periods where we fall into a lull. We can’t afford to do that.
“Other sides in this competition who have got a lot of talent at their disposal maybe can afford to do that, I’m not sure, but we can’t, so we have got to be at it.
“But I think the players have shown this now for quite some considerable time. If you think about maybe since the disappointment of Scotland over a year ago, I think competitively we have been there, we have been there fighting for every ball and we haven’t allowed games to disappear.
“We have had to play very strongly to get to this position and I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue that. If we don’t, it won’t be for lack of endeavour, believe it or not, that’s I can assure you from this team.”