No opening match at Euro 2016 has been built-up as a make-or-break encounter more than Ireland v Sweden, the subtext being that neither team should expect to win either of their remaining two matches against group heavyweights Belgium and Italy. But that’s not necessarily a fair assessment of the Irish - they qualified for this tournament by virtue of taking four points off Germany.
Generally speaking, we should take qualifying results with a pinch of salt but they can still provide grains of insight. Beating one of the big guns when there’s bags of pressure and no margin for error should be taken as a strong indicator of mentality and Martin O’Neill’s men have only grown in stature since conquering the world champions in Dublin last October.
For them, the prospect of games against the Red Devils and the Azzurri hold no fears and the underlying strategy of their approach might well be to avoid defeat in all three games and believe they will fall on the right side of fine margins with victory at some stage. It could be against Sweden, it might just as easily materialise elsewhere.
Indeed, when you consider how Ireland struggled in their four games against Georgia and Scotland, the later challenges might suit them better when Shane Long has more space to exploit in behind. The Irish don’t have much to offer as an attacking force, so their chances of success arguably rise against teams less perturbed by their main threat.
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For Sweden, the result of this encounter probably matters more. They boast no such pedigree against top-class opposition - indeed, the past decade has largely been the story of Zlatan Ibrahimovic bullying the lesser nations in qualifying then coming up short on the big stage. The former PSG striker will no doubt view this game as his biggest opportunity to make hay.
However, given the competitive nature of the Irish and the obvious identity of Sweden’s threat, you’d expect O’Neill to be well-prepared for a player he notoriously never rated as a BBC pundit at previous events. If they can keep the 34-year-old away from the penalty box for the vast majority of this clash, then the Swedes offer little else to be concerned about.
As such, I’m caught somewhere between Ireland (draw no bet) and just backing the draw. My tournament ratings have the supremacy at 0.02 goals in Sweden’s favour with a total goals expectancy of 1.74, the logical step is to take the bigger price about the stalemate and back it up with a bet on ‘no goalscorer’ at 6-1. The 0-0 is shorter than 9-2 on my tissue.
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