Ireland must look beyond James McCarthy in search of answers

The national team's reputation for punching above their weight has been disproved on the biggest stage in recent tournaments

Ireland, Belgium, James McCarthy

Ireland’s James McCarthy dejected after Belgium scored there first goal. ©INPHO/James Crombie

Ireland's defeat to Belgium has dampened the mood significantly, with the manner of the loss and the scoreline reaffirming the obvious gap in class between the two teams

Inevitably, the second round of fixtures provides a much more accurate assessment of the real lie of the land. With nerves and the added element of unfamiliar opposition, the first round can often result in teams boxing cleverly, looking to avoid taking any direct hits as they ease their way into the tournament. 

That was perhaps the case for Sweden and Ireland; neither side pushed on too far, and once Ireland did find the back of the net, they were put under constant pressure by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company. From that point on they were unable to string enough passes together to get out of their own area.

Just like the other teams that have sat back and looked to defend in this tournament to date, Ireland were punished for their lack of ambition both against Sweden and against Belgium on Saturday.

Much of the blame for the humiliating defeat was placed at the feet James McCarthy; he let his man go for Axel Witsel to score the second goal before being hauled off, but had been poor in the first game too, as he struggled to clear the low bar he has repeatedly set for himself on the international stage.

Given the level at which most pundits believe he can play (and his former manager Roberto Martinez consistently told us he could achieve) there's an extra sense of frustration when he lets game after game pass him by in a green shirt.

His timid performances are typical of a timid Ireland, however. When Shane Long was kicked in the head by two Belgian defenders, there was no hassling of the ref in the way that you would have expected a Roy Keane in his prime to do. There was no cynical foul to stop a breakaway attack in the way we know Italy would have done if they had seen similar gaps opening in their defence.

Image: Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen tackle Shane Long of Ireland. ©INPHO/James Crombie

That should be one of the major points of concern for Ireland in the buildup to their crucial game against Antonio Conte's side this Wednesday. The intensity which he demands from his entire squad means that, even if he does ring the changes, any player who comes in to fill the void won't simply be plugging a gap.

Their opening game against Belgium showed that there had been a general undervaluing of the Italians, perhaps given the focus on Premier League coverage in the media which casts a very long shadow, obscuring the achievements of some of their players on the domestic scene. Still, as though it were muscle memory passed down through the generations, there was a sensation that once Italy scored the first goal, they were never, ever going to concede to Belgium. 

That nastier side to the game is something that Ireland have lost over the years. While Ciaran Clark tired to take out Hazard on the breakaway without success, it's hard to imagine a situation where an Italian centre-back would be the one running full steam out of defence to try and make that challenge - someone else would already have done that. In years gone by, that may have been said about Ireland too, but on Saturday there was no one there who could impose themselves on the game when it was called for.

McCarthy is not that player, despite the flashes of promise he shows, but there didn't seem to be anyone who would step up on the pitch and demand better from his team-mates. Instead heads dropped, and no one made the calls that would calm the game down, or the small changes that could have helped Ireland get on the ball a bit more. 

The team continued to lose its grip and resorted to a style of play that was totally unsuited to the players they had on the pitch. Darren Randolph's distribution, which was entirely long bar one single short pass, was wasteful, but those in front of him either didn't want the ball or were going to do the same thing once they got it.

He was not the only guilty one in the regard, but there is little or no way to get around the gap in quality between the two sides. Reaching to the bench, the threadbare nature of the Ireland squad highlights a further worry. Desperate to avoid an embarrassment, O'Neill brought on our record goal scorer who was given nothing to work with, as aimless long balls continued to rain down from the back.

Without making huge personnel changes, Ireland played two totally different styles of football in two games, which were united by one common thread: they had no answer when they were actually posed some tough questions.

A win against Italy would once again gloss over all those shortcomings at least temporarily, but it is folly in the extreme to think that, given the way O'Neill's side capitulated in the second half against Belgium, anything different will happen when they face a battle-hardened Italian side.