James McClean in the frame to replace injured Jon Walters
JAMES McCLEAN could replace Jon Walters in the Republic of Ireland side that takes on Belgium at Stade de Bordeaux on Saturday.
Derry man McClean came on for Walters - who will miss the game with an Achilles injury - in the 1-1 Group E opener against Sweden in Paris and Martin O’Neill says the West Brom winger is in the frame to start against Marc Wilmots’ ‘Red Devils’.
“James McClean comes into it,” said O’Neill on Wednesday.
“It’s almost too clichéd to say that James has never let us down. James has done great for us. James at this minute, the way he trains for us, he is probably unlucky not to be in the starting line-up, so he would certainly come into our consideration, but there would be a few others too.”
Among those are Daryl Murphy and Robbie Keane, but McClean’s energy, industry and adaptability - he can play up front or on either wing - make him a good bet to replace Walters, who hopes to return for the final group game against early group leaders Italy in Lille.
“Jon has a good mindset anyway and that's what he is aiming for,” said O’Neill.
“If he knows that he can prepare for that and try and get through into this second game... the second game I would rule out. He's very, very important to us and it was great to have him on the field [against Sweden].
“Some things he felt, the ball he chased from Darren Randolph and, in normal circumstances, he'd have got that, but the ball went out of play. It was little things like that, it was getting a bit sore as it went on. For the length of time he played for us, he did great. Very important for us and we'll try and get him for the Italian game. You shouldn't just feel that, because Jon Walters is not going to be fit for a match, that you just think ‘aw’, you get into a state and think you're not going to solve it. We'll have to solve it somehow.”
Watch as Derry men James McClean and Shane Duffy are put through their paces on Wednesday:
On Saturday, Ireland will take on a much-fancied Belgium team who have been heavily criticised after a 2-0 loss to Italy in their opener. Manager Wilmots came in for some criticism for not being able to cope with Italy’s 3-5-2 formation, but O’Neill said the Belgian players had to take responsibility for their performances on Monday night.
“I don’t think it would have been anything to do with the formation,” he said.
“They would have known about the Italian set-up long beforehand. I think that we have to be adaptable and, if there is a possibility that 3-5-2 could win the game, I would consider it, I would definitely consider a number of options.
“I love talking about the systems and I don’t want to sound old school, but players win and lose the games. The great, great Brian Clough said ‘the game is simple’, when you haven’t got it, you have to work your guts out to get it back and when you do have it, if you’ve got talent around you, you’ve got a chance.”
O’Neill rates the Belgium squad as “as talented as any side in the competition” and predicts they will be determined to prove their worth after their uncertain start: “They are very dangerous,” he said.
“They will be really disappointed they didn't get something out of the Italian game. They will be looking at this group thinking they and the Italians are the strongest sides in it and here they are sitting with one game played and no points on the board. They will be very strong, very strong.
“If they are disappointed themselves with not playing well against Italy, they will feel they can rectify it. They have players playing in the big leagues every single week. Whatever you say, the little lad for Chelsea - Hazard - is a world class player who can beat people. They will cause us problems, so we have to show the same spirit and determination again and try and play as strongly with the ball as we did the other night.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill expects Northern Ireland to bounce back from their 1-0 loss to Poland when they play Ukraine on Thursday: “They didn’t get off to a good start against Poland, but those games are difficult,” he said.
“We played Poland twice and those games were difficult. Michael [O’Neill] will have done all his homework and I noticed that Poland changed a few players around that hadn’t played against us. They’ll be up for the game against Ukraine.”