EURO 2016: Daunting group lies in wait for Republic manager Martin O’Neill

Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill (left) and assistant manager Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland boss Martin O'Neill (left) and assistant manager Roy Keane

Martin O’Neill showed his gallows humour at the Euro 2016 draw but knows it cannot be much harder for the Republic of Ireland.

The boss joked he did not enjoy Saturday’s event as Ireland were firmly dumped into next year’s Group of Death.

Belgium, top of the world rankings, and 2006 World Cup winners Italy await them on June 18 and 22 respectively in Group E.

While Sweden, who like Ireland qualified via the play-offs, can be seen as the weaker of the three they will have Zlatan Ibrahimovic to inspire them in what is likely to be his last tournament.

The reaction to the draw will be largely negative as O’Neill told the BBC: “I thought I was going to enjoy the draw, I’m not sure I have done.”

Even Belgium’s Vincent Kompany recognised its difficulty.

After missing Manchester City’s narrow 2-1 win over Swansea which took them to the top of the Barclays Premier League the injured defender wrote on Twitter: “Meanwhile, a hard but great group for Belgium at #EURO2016 . The atmosphere in those games will be incredible. #Belgium.”

Historically every tournament has one and it usually involves a big scalp going home early – with Ireland hoping either Belgium, Italy or Sweden will suffer.

At last year’s World Cup, Spain – the reigning champions – were dumped out at the group stage after losing 5-1 to the Netherlands and 2-0 Chile before easing past Australia 3-0 in Brazil.

While at Euro 2012 the luckless Netherlands lost all of their group games against Germany, Portugal and Denmark just two years after reaching the World Cup final.

This time Ireland would have hoped to avoid the tricky test facing them, especially after losing all three of their games in Poland and Ukraine three years ago.

They lost to next year’s opponents Italy 2-0 in Poznan which rubber stamped a sorry campaign under Giovanni Trapattoni where they scored just once and conceded nine.

This time there will be renewed hope Ireland can avoid a similar disappointment after O’Neill’s efforts to rebuild them following Trapattoni’s resignation in 2013.

While it has been said they have no superstars O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane have moulded the squad into a cohesive unit which should not fear any of the sides in France.

O’Neill has already targeted Sweden on June 13 as the game to win and with only eight of the 24 teams not qualifying for the last 16 in the new extended format one win and a draw elsewhere could be enough to see Ireland through.

He added: “It couldn’t get tougher. Italy should be in Pot 1, they have not dropped down the rankings that much. Difficult games to look forward for the fans but it could not be tougher for us.

“Sweden is a game to look forward to, so let’s go for it. Sweden are not a one man team, they were quite strong in qualifying but Ibrahimovic is a top class player.”

Italy, Sweden and Belgium will hardly be happy either but they will take points off each other and Ireland must focus on their own job, otherwise they will be the victims in the Group of Death.