Ireland were drawn into Group E in the Euro 2016 draw last Saturday which means that they will be facing Sweden, Belgium and Italy in the European Champions next summer. Many have referred to this group as the group of death and it has been seen as one of the most difficult groups Ireland have ever been faced with in a major tournament.
Belgium are currently sitting pretty atop the FIFA rankings while Italy are ranked as the 15th best international side in the world, and the Italians do love to show up at major tournaments. Ireland are 31st in the World after they defeated Germany, and Bosnia and Herzegovina at home. Sweden are the only side in the group ranked lower than Ireland as they are 35th but they do have a major threat in their world class striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ireland’s Record Against Belgium
Ireland have met Belgium 14 times in the past and on many occasions there hasn’t been too much between the sides as altogether Ireland have scored 24 times against Belgium and have conceded 25. Ireland have won four of the fixtures, drawn five and lost five.
The first international between Ireland and Belgium took place on the 12th of February 1928 in Liege and Ireland won 4-2. The Belgians actually took a 2-0 lead but Ireland ran riot in the second half with two goals from Jimmy White, one from Bill Lacey and a penalty from Jack Sullivan. The Irish then went on to win the next two ties against Belgium in 1929 (4-0) and 1930 (3-1). Ireland faced Belgium again in 1934 and the World Cup Qualifying game ended in a thrilling 4-4 draw. The Belgians began to improve in the 40s, 50s and 60s as they won the next three games. Ireland bounced back though in 1966 when they defeated the Belgians 3-2.
In more modern times, Ireland were drawn against Belgium in the World Cup Qualifiers in the early 80s but they drew the home leg and lost the away leg 1-0. There also wasn’t much between the two sides in the European qualifiers in 1986 & 1987 as the ties ended 2-2 and 0-0.
A decade later and the two sides met again in World Cup Qualifiers as the home tie ended in a 1-1 draw while a Ray Houghton goal wasn’t enough in the away leg as the Belgians went on to win 2-1.
Ireland haven’t faced Belgium since, which may be a big worry as they will be a facing a much more dangerous side that has talented players in every position such as Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Edin Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Christian Benteke to name but a few.
Ireland’s Record Against Sweden
Ireland have only met Sweden 10 times in the past and have won on 3 occasions, drawn twice and lost 5 times. During these ties, Ireland have scored 13 times and conceded 16 goals. The first tie in history between the two sides occurred in 1949 during a World Cup Qualifier and Ireland suffered 3-1 losses in both the home and away legs. The Boys in Green faced Sweden ten years later and managed a surprising 3-2 victory during a friendly in Dublin.
21 years on, they faced Sweden in the European Qualifiers in 1970 and gained a 1-1 draw but lost the away leg 1-0. In more recent times, Ireland faced Sweden in friendlies at home in Dublin in 1999 and 2006. Surprisingly they managed to win both ties thanks to goals from Graham Kavanagh & Mark Kennedy in 1999 while in 2006 the goals came from Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and a sublime effort from Liam Miller.
The last time Ireland faced Sweden was in the World Cup Qualifiers in 2013 where they drew 0-0 away while in the home leg they took the lead through Robbie Keane but were outdone by goals from Elmander and Svensson.
Many are pinpointing the tie against Sweden as the game that Ireland have the best chance of gaining all three points in due to Sweden’s recent inconsistency. Sweden missed the World Cup competition in 2014 and had to overcome Denmark in a play-off to qualify for Euro 2016. Their only real star player is Zlatan Ibrahimovic so the key to overcoming Sweden will be to stop him having an influence in the game.
Ireland’s Record Against Italy
Ireland have faced Italy 14 times and have lost a whopping nine games against the Italians while they have only managed two wins and 3 draws. In the first seven games between the two nations (from 1926-1992), Italy won every game. The most heartbreaking loss for Ireland was in the 1990 World Cup Quarter Finals where a Salvatore Schillaci goal broke Irish hearts. Ireland returned the favour in the 1994 World Cup as a Ray Houghton goal gained Ireland’s first ever win over the Italians.
The sides didn’t face each other for 11 years after that game but Italy won the friendly tie in Dublin in August 2005. The two sides met again in the World Cup Qualifiers in 2009 but both home and away games ended in draws. Ireland won an international friendly against the Italians in June 2011 thanks to goals from Keith Andrews and Simon Cox. The next tie between the two sides had much more importance but Ireland lost the Euro 2012 Group C game 2-0 thanks to goals from Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli which only added more grief to an already embarrassing Euro 2012 campaign. The last time the two sides met it was in a friendly in May 2014 but it ended in a scoreless draw.
Italy don’t have the big name players that people were used to seeing in the 90s and the side we witnessed win the World Cup in 2006 but they are still a tough side to beat. It doesn’t help that Ireland have a horrendous record against the Italians but with the incredible support expected to travel to France this summer, they may just be inspired to create a magical moment for Irish football.
Sarah Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.