RTÉ soccer analyst Didi Hamann is “quietly confident” that the Republic of Ireland will get their European Championship campaign off to a winning start against Sweden.
Martin O’Neill’s side are going through their final preparations before they tackle Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company in Paris on Monday evening and have a few injury concerns ahead of the crucial Group E encounter.
Captain Robbie Keane and James McCarthy are expected to be available for selection, but doubts remain over Jon Walters after he trained on his own during the last squad session.
Despite the fitness concerns, and the presence of Italy and Belgium in the group, the former Liverpool midfielder says he expects Ireland to reach the knock-out stages in France, primarily as Ireland raise their game against the stronger nations.
“You’ve got to fancy their chances. I think they have a great opportunity to get out of the group even though they have been drawn into a tough group,” he told RTÉ Sport.
“If you look at the results over the last 18-24 months, the best performances have been against the bigger and better teams.
“I was here in the Aviva Stadium when they beat Germany, where they absorbed pressure and then scored the goal... being in the tough group wouldn’t put me off.”
The clash with Sweden is being viewed in some quarters as the battle for third place in the group and Hamann is tipping the Boys in Green to curb the threat of talisman Ibrahimovic and head to Bordeaux to face Belgium next Saturday with three points in the bag.
“Take care of Ibrahimovic and you are half-way there"
“The first game will be crucial. If you lose, it will be tough to get the three points you probably need to get out of the group, but I’m quietly confident they can beat Sweden on Monday,” he told RTÉ Sport.
The continuing fitness concerns surrounding Keane and the fact that Daryl Murphy is yet to score for his country means the weight of responsibility is very much on Shane Long to find the net in France.
The in-form Southampton striker comes off the back of his most prolific Premier League campaign of his career with 10 goals and his memorable match-winner against Germany during the qualification campaign.
Hamann describes the Tipperary native player as the “ultimate team player” and expects a strong showing in the tournament after such a starring role with the Saints at the tail-end of the English season.
“Shane Long causes most teams problems,” he said.
“The thing that impresses me about Shane Long is that even if he doesn’t score, obviously your job as a centre-forward is to score goals, he contributes to the team.
“He opens up spaces and creates a lot of room for other payers.
“He’s the ultimate team player.”