Up until last night, Italy would have gone into this match brimming with confidence, however, their reward for becoming the first team to secure their progression as group winners last time out against Sweden is a last-16 tie against defending champions Spain. Éder’s piece of brilliance that broke the deadlock in what was a very even and very uneventful game against Sweden looked to have handed Italy a favourable draw but Croatia’s win against Spain put the cat right amongst the Pigeons.
The Sweden game shone a light on a weakness in the Italian side, it appears that Italy’s strength can also be their weakness. While a defensive style is all well and good against an extremely talented Belgium side, it can be a hindrance against a weaker side such as Sweden who are unlikely to attack Italy and the game can turn into a stalemate. However, this should not be a problem in this one, no matter how Italy choose to play Ireland know they need to attack as only a win will be good enough to send them through. The Irish will have an extra incentive to do this as they already know four points will be good enough to send them through as a best third-place team.
The last time Ireland met Italy in a major tournament was in the 1994 World Cup, when the Irish won 1-0 thanks to Ray Houghton’s 11th minute goal. They will need to channel that spirit in order to cause a shock in Lille tonight. Martin O’Neill faces a big decision about tactics, knowing they need a win does he set up very attacking knowing that Italy will sit back but expose his side to the counter attack, which Italy play so well or does he set his team up to also sit back and look to knick a goal and hold the lead. Getting this decision right is pivotal to Ireland’s chances of progression.
Italy- Sirigu, De Sciglio, Barzagli, Ogbonna, Darmian, Bernardeschi, Thiago Motta, Sturaro, El Shaarawy, Zaza, Immobile
Expect a must changed side from Italy, they already know that they will play Spain in the next round whatever happens here, so Antonio Conte will be looking to keep his players fresh for that match. However, the change in goal may be enforced, Gianluigi Buffon is suffering with a fever and given the situation of the game is unlikely to be rushed back. Italy are also without Antonio Candreva who is still struggling with a thigh injury. Italy will also look to rest Bonucci, Chiellini, De Rossi, Éder and Thiago Motta as they are all one booking away from missing the Spain match.
Republic of Ireland- Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Duffy, Brady, Hendrick, Whelan, Quinn, Hoolahan, Murphy, Long
Martin O’Neill may well decide to go with two up top to try to get the win tonight, so don’t be surprised to see Daryl Murphy starting alongside Shane Long. It looks like he will get the nod as Jonathon Walters again failed to complete a training session earlier this week, his Achilles injury continues to keep him out of the tournament and it looks increasingly unlikely that we will see him at these European Championships.
It appears that Stephan El Shaarawy, fresh from his £10m move to Roma this week, will get a chance to start for his country in the game. El Shaarawy has been on fire this season since his loan move there in late January, he scored six goals in his nine league appearances. If Ireland choose to press Italy they will leave spaces in behind and these kind of spaces are what El Shaarawy thrives upon. With his electric pace, skill and delivery he will be a real threat to Ireland and will be vital to drive Italy up the field when the ball is won.
Ireland need goals in this one so will turn to Shane Long. Long has been in good form this season with Southampton, scoring 10 goals in 26 games and there has even been rumours about potential interest from Tottenham. However, Long will not be interested in such talk tonight and will be going all out to secure victory for his team, he scored a marvellous goal on the break against to secure a win against world champions Germany and Ireland will probably be relying on a similar situation to score a goal tonight.
I think Ireland will run into the problem most teams have against Italy, trying to score past them. I worry that the Republic don’t have enough quality to break down a very organised defence. I predict that Italy will win this match 1-0.
Italy vs Republic of Ireland, Live on ITV1, coverage starts from 7:15pm, Kick-off at 8:00pm GMT at the Stade Pierre Mauroy