The Republic of Ireland kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against a confident Sweden on Monday (5pm on BBC1).
Martin O’Neill’s charges made it through to the European Championship by defeating Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-1 in a two-legged play-off tie after finishing behind Germany and Poland in their qualification group. The Republic of Ireland did notably take four points off the world champions after drawing away from home and recording a famous victory at the Aviva Stadium.
Having failed to progress beyond the group stage at Euro 1988 and Euro 2012, the Irish will be hoping that they can take advantage of the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams and advance to the knockout rounds of the competition for the first time this summer.
The Republic of Ireland’s spirit, unity and togetherness could take them a long way, with every member of the team fully aware of his role within the collective. Shane Long is a striker who will stretch opposing defences and work tirelessly for 90 minutes and more, while there is plenty of experience in the ranks via the likes of John O’Shea, Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan.
The full-backs – Seamus Coleman on the right and Robbie Brady on the left – are both excellent going forward, although doubts still remain about whether the Republic of Ireland have enough quality in attacking areas to break down opposition defences.
It is impossible to talk about Sweden without mentioning their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) in the first couple of sentences. Erik Hamren’s side’s chances of progressing to the knockout stage for the first time since Euro 2004 rest firmly on the former Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain striker’s shoulders, with Ibrahimovic the only real top-class player within the Sweden squad. The rest of the team is set up to service and get the best out of the 34-year-old, who has the ability to turn any given match on its head with a moment of magic.
Sweden are likely to employ a 4-4-2 formation, with John Guidetti or Marcus Berg set to be paired with Ibrahimovic up top. Kim Kallstrom and Oscar Lewicki are important figures in the centre of midfield, while centre-halves Ludwig Augustinsson and Andreas Granqvist could be forced to withstand a lot of pressure in what is arguably the most difficult of the six groups. With Ibrahimovic on their side, though, Sweden will be quietly confident of squeezing through to the round of 16.
For the Irish, Walters, Robbie Keane and James McCarthy have all been nursing injuries in the build-up to the big kick-off but each member of the trio will be hopeful of being passed fit in time to be included in the match day squad. O’Neill could deploy a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3 formation having trialled all three in recent months, while there are seemingly plenty of places in the XI still up for grabs; indeed, two entirely different starting line-ups were used in the warm-up friendlies against the Netherlands and Belarus, which will have left Hamren guessing even more ahead of Monday’s encounter.
A draw could be the outcome in Saint-Denis, with both the Republic of Ireland and Sweden likely to be cautious in their opening encounter. This is a key game for both – Italy and Belgium, the other two teams in the group, will expect to pick up six points against these two – so a loss for either Sweden or the Republic of Ireland could prove pivotal.