First up is Sweden in Paris and our most vital game considering the new tournament rules. With the four best third-placed teams now also going on to the knockout round a single win could feasibly be enough to put us through. Sweden seem like our most viable option in that regard. The Swedes also had a relatively poor qualifying campaign (including a 4-1 thrashing at home by Austria) and scraped through via the play-offs. The one big stand-out performer is the giant kung-fu expert and part-time comedian that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He’s a man that knows Paris very well from his hugely prolific four years there. Other than him however their squad is quite short of real quality. If John O’Shea’s wiles and tactical nous can shackle Zlatan, maybe with actual shackles, then Shane Long can give us a chance at the other end. With a bit of luck and a lot of deep defensive concentration a victory could be within our grasp, and then we can lose the run of ourselves and begin to dream!
Next it’s off to Bordeaux in wine country to face the country that’s famous for not being famous for anything, Belgium. With one of the most highly talented squads in Europe and ranked second in the world by FIFA the Belgians come into the tournament among the favourites. Players like Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku would have any normal defence pre-emptively signing up for post-traumatic stress therapy. However, here’s exactly where our noble representatives have the advantage. As extreme underdogs the lads can get out and play for the love of the game. Expect a lot of goals one way or another as Ireland look to better the Belgians with an adventurous mantra along the lines of “if they score six, we’ll just have to score seven”.
We round off the group stages against the Italians, less buzzing balls of youthful energy and more seasoned veterans who know the shortcut to victory without burning themselves out. It promises to be more of a war of slow-burning attrition as the cunning Azzurri wait to pounce on our mistakes. Don’t be surprised if the game is scoreless until the last five minutes with the majority of the stadium having a snooze. But whisper it quietly, as just then we’ll be unleashing our secret weapon. Robbie Keane is perfectly made for just this occasion and what odds on him jumping off the bench, wriggling between the Italian defenders to get on to a breaking ball, swivelling on a six-pence and sticking it in the bottom corner!
So with that goal seeing us through, next up is the knockout stages and anything can happen. With some fortuitous traffic jams, a flood or two and maybe an opposition team getting stuck at a striking airport we could maybe go all the way. We’re allowed to dream right? So get yourself up to Dublin and book an apartment with us for the second week of July for what promises to be the greatest victory parade since we beat Romania on penalties. It’ll be the highlight of many people’s lives!