EURO 2016 Preview: Ireland face a tough task in Group E
The Boys in Green take on Sweden, Belgium and Italy in a ten-day period at Euro 2016. Can Martin O'Neill's men give Irish fans something to cheer about?
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Tournaments odds: 100/1
Coach: Martin O'Neill
O'Neill with assistant boss Roy Keane
This former Northern Ireland international took time to settle into his role as Republic of Ireland boss but he was in full control of his tactics by the end of the Euro 2016 qualifiers. O'Neill's presence should give all Ireland fans hope that good times lie in wait this summer.
Star turn: Shane Long (Southampton)
The Saints striker has waited a long time to be crowned as the successor to Robbie Keane at the helm of the Ireland team and his winning goal against Germany in the Euro 2016 qualifier last October was his defining moment. Here's hoping the in-form Saints striker has a few more gems up his sleeve this summer.
Wild card: Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)
At the age of 34, Hoolahan has been a late bloomer on the international stage but all now appreciate his importance to Ireland’s hopes. A silky passer, O'Neill has been reluctant to use him in tight games but he has to find space for 'Wessi' in his Euro 2016 starting line-up.
Wes Hoolahan, Stephen Quinn, Robbie Brady and Robbie Keane
Young gun: Robbie Brady (Norwich)
A key man in the Ireland set-up as he will be charged with the set-piece delivery that will be so crucial to Ireland's hopes in France.
Weak spot: Ireland's struggle to hold on to the ball for sustained periods in a game means they are liable to be pushed back by their heavyweight opponents in the group phase.
Finest hour: The run to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup finals had the whole nation captivated.
Verdict: The odds are stacked against Ireland getting out of their group, yet this team has built up momentum in the last year. If Ireland play more than three games, we should be happy.
Squad: O'Neill left it until the last minute to name the following Ireland squad:
Tournaments odds: 100/1
Coach: Erik Hamren
Hamren has been in charge of Sweden's national team since 2009 and his experience in the role should stand him in good stead heading into Euro 2016. This ex-Rosenborg boss will leave his post after this tournament so will be aiming for a glorious swansong.
Star turn: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Free agent, formerly Paris Saint-Germain)
He may be closing in on his 35th birthday later this year, but the notoriously confident striker continues to confirm his status as a world-class performer. Glory in a major tournament has eluded this superstar, so maybe he can tick that missing box on his record this summer. He could be plying his trade with Manchester United once Sweden's Euros campaign is done (hopefully at the group stage).
Wild card: Marcus Berg (Panathinakos)
Ibrahimovic's presence in the Sweden forward line overshadows anyone else in his area of the pitch, yet the former Hamburg star could be vital to the balance of the Sweden team at Euro 2016. He has a good scoring record at international level.
Young gun: Oscar Lewicki (Malmo)
At the age of 23, this former Bayern Munich starlet is emerging as a star of the Sweden side after he played a key role in the under-21 team that won the European Championship title last year. A gritty, committed battler in the middle of the mark.
Weak spot: Ibrahimovic aside, Sweden lack the players that can rattle the biggest names in European football and they will throw up few surprises at Euro 2016. History suggests big Zlatan cannot carry this team to the back end of tournaments.
Verdict: Their opening game against Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland has to finish in a win for Sweden to give them the momentum they require. But who wants that to happen?
Squad: These are the players that Ireland can face in Paris on June 13:
Tournaments odds: 11/1
Coach: Marc Wilmots
Under-pressure to deliver in this tournament as he looks to tap into the 'golden generation' of Belgian stars, Wilmots has been doing his best to dampen down expectations around his side. No excuses this time, Belgium need to reach the last four at least.
Star turn: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
This magnificent attacking star has proved his worth in the Premier League after a mega-money move to Manchester City last summer. Jose Mourinho must regret his decision to offload him at Chelsea.
Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard
Wild card: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
What has happened to last season's Premier League Player of the Year? Out of form, lacking fitness and seemingly unmotivated this season, he has much to prove at Euro 2016. He will now be Belgium skipper after an injury to Vincent Kompany.
Young gun: Divock Origi (Liverpool)
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has quickly helped to mould this promising striker into a player worthy of first team status. He is a tireless worker and a great super-sub for Belgium to call on.
Weak spot: With so many players woefully out of form or suffering with injuries, there are plenty of questions marks hanging over Belgium as they head into Euro 2016. They are also vulnerable at the heart of their defence, in the absence of the inspirational Kompany. Potential defensive starters in the shape of Nicolas Lombaerts and Dedryck Boyata were also ruled out of the tournament through injury, adding to Wilmots' issues in defence.
Finest hour: A fourth-place finish at the 1986 World Cup finals, when they were denied a place in the Final by Maradona's genius.
Verdict: Belgium could win Euro 2016 but there is also a danger that a chaotic build-up, laden with injury and form concerns for star men will lead to a summer of disappointment.
Squad: Wilmots has the following players at his disposal for the tournament:
Tournaments odds: 16/1
Coach: Antonio Conte
Conte is Chelsea-bound after Euro 2016 but this no-nonsense tactician will demand the best from his Italian players before he turns his thoughts to Premier League action. The former Juventus coach was found guilty and banned from the game after failing to report match fixing back in 2012.
Star turn: Graziano Pelle (Southampton)
It says much about the lack of striking options available to Italy coach Antonio Conte that he was forced to turn to this ageing Italian striker in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Pelle, while showing patchy form with Southampton, has responded with some good performances.
Wild card: Eder (Inter Milan)
After scoring goals aplenty in the first half of the Serie A season with Sampdoria, this Brazilian-born attacking star made the move to Inter on a loan deal in January. He should partner Pelle up front in France.
Young gun: Stephan El Shaarawy ( Milan)
At the age of 23, this attacking midfielder could be a key man as Italy look to solve their goal-scoring problems at Euro 2016. His Egyptian father gives this winger who has been on loan at Roma this season his less than Italian name.
Weak spot: Pelle is not a striker who compares favourably to some of the greats that have led the Italian line down the years and the absence of injured schemer Marco Verratti is another blow to their attacking ambition. Will they be potent enough up front?
Finest hour: World Cup winners in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, they also won the European Championships in 1968.
Verdict: Italy find themselves in a challenging opening group and unless they score enough goals, they could be facing an early exit again. Expect them to scrape through to the last-16, but that is by no means certain. Quarter-finals may be the most they can hope for.
Squad: The incoming Chelsea boss has chosen this squad for his final bow as Italy manager: