EURO 2016: Martin O'Neill calls for big victory to see Republic of Ireland progress
Martin O'Neill has challenged the Republic of Ireland to pull off a big victory after they were denied a winning start to their Euro 2016 campaign in cruel fashion on Monday evening.
Ciaran Clark’s late own goal at the Stade de France ensured Sweden emerged from the first game in Group E with a scarcely deserved point from a 1-1 draw, leaving both teams needing to spring a shock against either Belgium or Italy if they are to reach the knock-out stage.
O’Neill admitted his side’s best chance of collecting three points might have gone, but saw enough in a display which was impressive for long periods to believe there is more to come.
Asked if the Republic would now have to do something special against either the Belgians or the Italians, he said: “Well, after today, I think that’s probably true.
“It would have been great. I know how Wales feel - they have got three points on the board and it does make an awful difference. But we’ll fight it through.
“We have got the two games coming up, very, very tough matches against two sides who are pretty classy, but again if I can take anything from the performance tonight, it is just that the players looked accomplished, which was great.
“We have desire, we have a never-say-die spirit, but I thought they looked accomplished and I think that’s players growing into international football, which helps.”
Ireland were the better side before the break and had hit the crossbar through Jeff Hendrick, and they took a deserved 48th-minute lead when Wes Hoolahan swept home Seamus Coleman’s cross in fine style after the full-back had carved his way into the box.
But Sweden, who had until that point created little of note, launched their fightback almost immediately and were rewarded 19 minutes from time when defender Clark - who had already forced a save from his own keeper Darren Randolph with a miscued clearance - unwittingly headed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cross home.
O’Neill, who confirmed that Jonathan Walters suffered a recurrence of his Achilles problem during the game, said: “That’s the disappointment because we should be speaking to you here with three points on the board instead of one, and that would have given us a really great chance.
“But I think we have got more than fighting spirit in the side, I think we have got players who can play a bit, players who are improving at international level.
“Spurred on by a magical crowd, I thought there were some great performances there.”
Goalscorer Hoolahan was equally confident that there is hope for Ireland despite their understandable disappointment on the night.
He said: “It was a good performance and we’ll look forward to playing Belgium on Saturday. Obviously they got the equaliser and it was a bit disappointing, but overall we are proud of our performance.”
Sweden boss Erik Hamren was less than impressed with what he saw before the second-half flurry which eventually spared his side’s blushes.
He said: “The feeling right now is disappointment more than being satisfied with a draw despite coming back [from a losing position]. We have to give 300 per cent in the next games if we are going to go through.
“It’s good that we didn’t lose but I’m disappointed that we didn’t play at the level we’re able to do in the first 50 minutes.”
However, Hamren absolved star man Ibrahimovic for a poor first 50 minutes.
He said: “To be a forward you need support. Our attacking play wasn’t really good. The first 50 minutes, our forwards didn’t have much to work with.
“As a team, we got better after the first 50 minutes, so they had some opportunities and he was also involved in the goal that we scored.”