THE REPUBLIC of Ireland kick-off their Euro 2016 campaign on Monday evening with a Group E clash from the Stade de France against Sweden. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) highlights the betting angle.
Republic of Ireland v Sweden | Monday 17.00 | BBC1
Ireland and Sweden open their Euro 2016 accounts on Monday evening knowing a victory could hold all the aces in the race to qualify in Group E. Likewise, defeat in the French capital could spell disaster.
Pitted alongside Belgium and Italy, both Ireland and Sweden will be all too aware of the magnitude of their opening match with two devilishly difficult games to follow in the pool.
The Boys In Green arrive in France with the oldest squad and a degree of dread following their abysmal efforts in 2012. And failure to win a warm-up match has seen a degree of doubt creep into the normally optimistic fan base after what was a memorable qualification campaign.
Ireland’s never-say-day attitude invoked by head coach Martin O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane was pivotal and lady luck smiled down on the side as they managed to sneak four points from goals in the 90th minute or later, as well as downing world champions in Dublin.
However, the Republic scored just eight times in their eight qualifiers, excluding the matches against Gibraltar. And in games against Germany, Poland and Scotland (W1-D3-L2) the Greens were out-shot 33-55, returning a worrying low shot ratio figure of 37.5%.
But there are positives. The Boys In Green shipped only seven goals in a group that saw Germany and Poland rattle in 57 goals between them and although the squad’s lacking any major stars, the resilience instilled has made the Irish tricky customers to overcome.
The Republic have rediscovered their belief and ambition under O’Neill and their hard-working ethos has made the most out of a limited but often effective game-plan. However, their success against the Swedes is likely to boil down to how they handle Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
No side at Euro 2016 are more reliant on just one player than Sweden. Nope, not Wales on Bail, not Poland on Lewandowski and not Slovakia on Hamsik.
Blue-Yellow captain Ibrahimovic is the Swedes all-time top goalscorer and is absolutely the essential to the their success under Eric Hamren.
Head coach Hamren is happy to admit his side must focus their entire system around their one and only world class player, knowing cocksure Zlatan has the ability to turn any defence upside down.
The skipper’s importance to the cause was clear to see during the nation’s play-off victory over Denmark – their first against their great rivals since 2000 – when Zlatan scored three of the Blue-Yellow’s four goals, including a sumptuous free-kick in the second leg to confirm qualification.
Hamren works hard to massage Zlatan’s precious ego but it’s well worth the effort – 62 goals in 112 national team appearances is a record that won’t be beaten and that includes 11 goals on the path to France.
Since Euro 2012, Ibrahimovic has scored in 19 of Sweden’s 21 meaningful matches, laying on six assists, meaning he’s played a major role in 74% of the Blue Yellows’ competitive goals across the last four years.
When Zlatan hasn’t scored or assisted, Sweden have failed to win a game in that four-year sample. And of the eight matches he’s missed, Hamren’s men picked up just a solitary victory, against lowly Lichtenstein.
Despite Ibrahimovic’s exploits, qualifying wasn’t a walk in the park. The Swedes drew three of their first four and failed to beat top-two finishers Austria and Russia. So if Ireland can stop the supply and influence, they stand an excellent chance of at least picking up a point.
Interestingly, Zlatan’s failed to score in three previous games against the Irish and although Sweden boast a W5-D2-L3 head-to-head record, the pre-match favourites have fired blanks in three of their last four head-to-head duels.
A draw (41/20 Netbet) looks the most likely scenario in a low-scoring contest. Eight of Sweden’s 12 qualifiers featured fewer than three goals but the Blue-Yellow have netted in all bar three of their 24 competitive outings since Euro 2012.
The Irish have only been silenced on four occasions in the same sample and with nine of the Republic’s 10 qualifiers (excluding Gibraltar) also rewarding Under 2.5 Goals backers, it looks like an opportunity for us to enter the correct score market – the 1-1 is available to support at 21/4 (Netbet).