Five talking points from Ireland v Italy.

Yesterday, I found myself asking “Did that really happen last night?”. The dust has settled now, and I can reflect a bit better as to what happened in Lille on Wednesday night.

When Wes Hoolahan missed a gifted one-on-one with Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, I gave up hope. Thankfully the players didn’t. The lads played out of their skin with immense belief, energy and commitment. To be honest, the 1-0 scoreline flatters that Italian team, which admittedly was somewhat weakened – it should have been a lot more. That goal on 85 minutes from Robbie Brady will however be forever etched in the memory of the supporters and players alike.

The performance was uplifting. Liam Brady said on RTÉ that it was “like Jack Charlton football”. Which, as you know, in Irish football terms, is as big a compliment as you’ll get. Now when we face the host nation France in Lyon on Sunday, we can have a bit more belief in ourselves.

A few things I’ve noticed during Wednesday’s game:

  • Seamus Coleman, captain of Ireland, is born. The Donegal man is, in my view, the natural heir to the armband once Robbie calls it a day. He’s physical, vocal and skillful.
  • Darren Randolph is good. But he can be great. He’s West Ham’s number two goalkeeper. A good tournament here, and he will be the Hammers’ – or someone else’s – number one.
  • If we play like that on Sunday, we’ll beat France. The self-belief and courage was astounding. I’d not seen that from an Irish team in years. France will be interesting opponents, and I would have had taken them over the likes of Wales or Iceland.
  • James McClean should always start for Ireland. I’ve always thought that. He was a beast on Wednesday. Bossing the Italians from the very start. He’s young and his work rate and determination is superb.

And one negative point:

  • Aiden McGeady is getting worse as time goes on. It’s getting to the point where he’s becoming a liability almost. If he’s going through a bad spell, it’s lasting years. Frustratingly inconsistent and both club and international level. I wouldn’t put him on the pitch for the rest of the tournament.

But we have Sunday to look forward to. And we all will. We’ve never reached this far in the European Championships before. So we can enjoy it. Our belief at the moment is sky high. Come Sunday, I’d be confident of out-singing the French fans in the stands. If Martin and Roy do things right again, I’d be confident we can outplay the French team on the pitch.

The next round of matches are:

25 June 2016
Switzerland   v  Poland
Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Étienne

25 June 2016
Wales  v  Northern Ireland
Parc des Princes, Paris

25 June 2016
Croatia  v  Portugal
Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens

26 June 2016
France  v  Republic of Ireland
Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Lyon

26 June 2016
Germany  v  Slovakia
Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Villeneuve-d’Ascq

26 June 2016
Hungary  v  Belgium
Stadium Municipal, Toulouse

27 June 2016
Italy  v  Spain
Stade de France, Saint-Denis

27 June 2016
England  v  Iceland
Allianz Riviera, Nice


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Is everybody in? Euro 2016 is about to begin.

It’s refreshing that The Boys In Green are in another major tournament – even if this one is an expanded edition of the Euros that we scraped in to via the play-offs. That doesn’t matter now. We are in. We are here. And we are good to go.

These are the events where memories are made and history is written. Yes, our last time in this competition was forgettable, but you’re looking at a new look Ireland team. A new feel about it.

The Trapattoni era had some good moments, but it was too short on confidence (and other complaints). Do you think that an Ireland team during that period could take on the world champions Germany and beat them?

Definitely not!

Under Martin O’Neill it’s certainly different. The former Celtic boss’ fearlessness is what I admire most. And having Roy Keane as his number 2 is no bad thing. Even if he did want to kill some of the lads after a defeat to Belarus in Cork.


So we’re here. On Monday night, we take on Sweden in the Stade de France (which I will miss because I will be on a plane from Buenos Aires to London – argh!). To say that this game is crucial is quite the understatement. Three points to begin with is vital. Because the remaining games won’t get any easier.

Saturday 18th, we face Belgium in the wine-rich city of Bordeaux. Marc Wilmots’ men have to be one of the favourites to win the competition in my opinion. They boast a plethora of talent and names such as Hazard, Benteke, Carrasco, Du Bruyne to name but a few can cause serious issues. But with the right style and the belief, anything is possible. (As the Germans found out.)

Then our final group game is against Italy on Wednesday 22nd in the city of Lille. You probably remember that we met the Italians in the last European Championships in Poznan. A game we were beaten fairly by 2-0. This time it’s a little different. The Azzurri have quite an ageing team with names such as De Rossi, Motta, Chiellini, Buffon and Barzagli. Could we catch the Italians at a good time? I believe so. But I want Robbie Keane and the lads to have the same belief.

I’m not saying we are going to win the tournament or anything. But as Leicester City showed us – anything is actually possible.


Join our Euro 2016 fantasy football here.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ibrahimovic looks set to join Mourinho at Man United.

Mino Raiola, the animated agent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has reached a deal with Manchester United to bring the Swedish international to Old Trafford. The 34-year-old will now seek assurances from José Mourinho over the role he will play in the red shirt before any deal is complete, as Zlatan has no intentions to spending his time on the bench.

It probably comes as no surprise that the Swede wishes to partner up with the former Chelsea boss. “I have spoken to Mourinho every day since I left Inter,” Ibrahimovic said at a Sweden press conference. “We talk a lot”. He was never going to join rivals Man City, now led by the man who forced him out of his “dream move” to Barcelona, Pep Guardiola.


Tottenham did make Ibrahimovic a concrete offer, but it was turned down. The former PSG striker has eyes on only one thing – working is The Special One again. It will be a major acquisition for United should they finally put pen to paper, and things around the red half of Manchester should get quite interesting. Especially when Mourinho AND Ibrahimovic’s nemesis, Guardiola, comes to Old Trafford.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Join our EURO 2016 Fantasy Football.

Every two years, we football fans are treating to a summer festival of the beautiful game. Euro 2016 kicks off in a week from now, so here’s an opportunity for you to spend that week by carefully choosing your best eleven for the forthcoming tournament.


Here’s how you do it:

  • Go to and head for the fantasy football section here:
  • Register (takes less than a minute), then select fantasy 16. Pick your team and join our league using this code: 03092LBZ

And that’s it really. If you’re looking for ideas, I recently wrote about five players to definitely keep an eye on during the competition. But I’ve been wrong before.

Best of luck.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League Final review: Glory for Real Madrid.

Pundits, fans and even players expected a fiesty affair for the 2016 Champions League final. And indeed whenever Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid face each other, it usually is.

The man who broke Atléti hearts two years ago in Lisbon, Sergio Ramos, opened the scoring on 14 minutes. Toni Kroos swung in a free-kick from out on the left side, which Gareth Bale flicked on. The Real Madrid defender, who was in a slightly offside position, got a touch to put the ball past Jan Oblak from close range.

Ramos joins an elite group of players that have scored in two Champions League finals. The others include Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Samuel Eto’o and Raul.

Atléti would often play the long ball from the midfield area up towards Torres or Griezmann, but nothing really troubled the Real Madrid back four.

Los Rojiblancos struggled to close down Real as they normally would. The passing appeared to be just too quick for Diego Simeone’s men. With Atléti losing possession and looking somewhat uninspired, they didn’t seem to have any luck on their side.

For the last several minutes of the first half, Atléti seemed to have more possession, which didn’t bother Real too much. Diego Simeone looked on from the sidelines in the first half appearing to be more frustrated than his usual animated self.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Atlético Madrid did win a penalty in the first minute of the second half following Pepe’s challenge on Fernando Torres who, up to that point, was fairly anonymous in the match. Antoine Griezmann stepped up and slammed the ball down the middle and off the crossbar.

The first twenty minutes of the second half was all Atlético. They seemed hungry and their positioning was far better, but they weren’t efficient enough with their accuracy and passing and no shots to goal truly bothered Real ‘keeper Keylor Navas.

Real Madrid had the chance to double their lead on 69 minutes following Luka Modric’s sublime ball to Karim Benzema out on the right side played the Frenchman on, but Oblak was flawless in preventing Los Blancos in claiming their second goal.

Then a stroke of luck.

Atléti brought it back level on 78 minutes with a goal from half-time substitute Yannick Carrasco. A nice cross from Juanfran into Real’s six yard box, was met by the Belgian who buried it from close range. Real’s defence seemed to be asleep and Navas had no chance. Simeone’s men deserved the goal for their performance in the second half.

With the score at 1-1 at 90 minutes, the game was forced into extra time. Real, by then, has used all three of their substitutes. Atlético had only used the one.

The first period of extra time was mostly dominated by Atlético, but Real had their fair share of chances. The tired legs on players from both sides became more obvious. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the latter had, in my opinion, been Los Blancos’ most creative player on the pitch, looked exceptionally tired going into the second 15 minutes.

Real Madrid were probably more dominant in the second period, but ultimately nothing came of it. And then we had the dreaded penalties. It was a game of nerves from here. Jan Oblak and Keylor Navas both have great reputations for saving penalties. Drama in Milan. Primera or Unidecima?

Given the pressure, each penalty from both sides went in with seemingly great ease. The Atléti’s fourth penalty from Juanfran hit the post. The who else but Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up and won the Champions League for Real Madrid. Unidecima it is.


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Mourinho set to become Man United manager this week.

Louis van Gaal has appeared to have taken charge of Manchester United for the last time following his FA Cup victory over Crystal Palace yesterday. The Red Devils’ performances under the Dutchman have been sub-par to what the club expects, having been a dominant side for two decades.

Rumours emerged that months ago that José Mourinho would be the replacement. One street vendor outside Old Trafford last January went as far as selling Manchester United scarves with the Portuguese’s image across it along with the words “The Special One”. Now multiple reports suggest that the 53-year-old will indeed be taking over in the hot seat for the red half of Manchester.


Mourinho is box-office. A proven winner, he’s one of the most recognizable figures in the game. His unbeaten home record alone from 2002 until 2011 is phenomenal. And no doubt, most, if not all, Man United fans will welcome this appointment.

But it’s an appointment that some will no doubt be cautious of. From his parking the bus with Inter Milan to eye-gouging the late Tita Vilanova when at Real Madrid. And from his infamous public bust up with Chelsea physio Eva Carneiro to being sacked by The Blues … twice (the second time was following a string of unusually poor results which left his beloved Chelsea just above the relegation zone), José Mourinho, to some, has as many cons as he does pros.

Interesting times ahead at Old Trafford, that’s for sure.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)


Five players to keep an eye on during Euro 2016.

Not long to go now until kick-off for the first game for Euro 2016. This competition, much like the World Cup, are where stars are born. If a promising player has a good tournament, then all the big clubs are keen to sign him.

However, this tournament will, as I’m sure you well know, be contested by 24 teams, having been expanded from the 16-team format. There will be a plethora of talent on display throughout. But here’s my list of some fine stars and hot prospects to firmly keep an eye on.

Mateo Kovačić (Croatia)

I’ve previously featured Kovačić in my One To Watch section a little over three years ago just as he signed to Inter Milan. He excelled at the Milanese club, and was signed by giants Real Madrid last August. With the talent at Zidane’s disposal, chances have been limited, but performances have been great. Kovačić is set to shine alongside Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric for Croatia.

Julian Draxler (Germany)

The 22-year-old midfielder has got some serious competition to make it into the German starting XI. They are, after all, world champions (not that that fact would phase Shane Long…). But Draxler has the sheer talent, speed and determination to be exactly what Joachim Löw needs. This is a player you should definitely keep an eye on, whether he’s in a Germany or a Wolfsburg shirt.


Grzegorz Krychowiak (Poland)

Ireland fans may remember Krychowiak. He scored the first Polish goal against the Boys in Green in Warsaw last October. In truth, the Sevilla midfielder is actually a very clever player in an improving Polish team. The 26-year-old has been linked with a number of clubs, including Arsenal. A good tournament here and many more heads, other than Arsene Wenger, will definitely be turning.

Koke (Spain)

If you have been watching La Liga, you will be more than familar with this 24-year-old. Atlético Madrid’s Koke is absolutely brilliant. I believe that the current Spanish side’s midfield, which usually contains the likes of Busquets, Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva, can only be complimented by his presence. Spain are one of the favourites to go far – keep your eye on him in this.

Antoine Griezmann (France)

Koke’s Atletico Madrid team-mate, Antoine Griezmann is, on a good day, pretty unstoppable. His hunger to win and his form (he scored 32 goals across all competitions for Atléti this season) would mean that the 25-year-old just may well get in Didier Deschamps’ starting XI ahead of the likes of Giroud, Gignac or Martial. With no Benzema around, it could well be his time to shine.


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Ibra could be the gift that will keep giving for the English press

As we all know by know, Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on his way out of PSG. This week he was rumoured to be linked with Manchester United. He hasn’t announced where his next club will be, but the talk of him coming to the Premier League after Euro 2016 is carrying more and more weight,

The 34-year-old has won titles with every club he has been with. He has been a sheer success everywhere (though his one season with Barcelona is probably considered otherwise due to his spat with Pep Guardiola, despite winning five trophies during his time in Catalonia).

Clearly a phenomenal player, it’s his character that could make him every reporter’s dream. I’ll just leave this video here to illustrate my point.

Wherever Ibra goes, it won’t be a chilled atmosphere – on or off the pitch.


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The unlikely Kings of England

“I don’t think it’s a miracle,” said Real Madrid manager and France footballing legend Zinedine Zidane. “They had a fantastic season”. Indeed, Zizou may be on his own, because when a club like Leicester, who were famously 5,000/1 to win the Premier League, actually go ahead and do just that, many would believe that indeed a miracle of football has occurred.

Miracle is a word being used a lot. Claudio Ranieri used it himself to describe the Foxes following their  “great escape” last season, when former boss Nigel Pearson led the side to win seven of their last nine matches to fight their way from the bottom of the table up to 14th place. A year later, would he – or indeed anyone – have expected this?

Of course Zidane is right. They did have a fantastic season. Claudio Ranieri has done fantastic. No, actually he had done phenomenally. In fact, I’m not sure if there’s a word yet invented to describe just how well he has done.

Nine months after Gary Lineker famously tweeted  ‘Claudio Ranieri? Really?’ following the Italian’s appointment, there are now calls for a statue of the 64-year-old boss at the King Power Stadium. He’ll probably get one too. Think about that.

But it was the drama in how they won that was enjoyable for the neutral. But I think that most football fans wanted to see Leicester City become Premier League champions. No disrespect to Tottenham, they are a marvellous club with an exciting, young squad, but would it have had the same effect had they had won the league this season? Not even remotely.

It’s interesting to note some of Leicester’s statistics. The game is becoming more and more obsessed with stats. Top flight managers have bought players solely because of their stats. Yet, interestingly, the percentages show that Ranieri’s team are in the bottom three for possession (only one club, West Brom, have a lower pass completion rate). Their spirit and determination was utterly admirable. Statistics aside, the only one that matters is the league table. Ranieri got that spot on.

It’s probably one of the biggest shocks in not only footballing history, but sporting history. And it simply goes shows that, yes, in sport: anything can happen.

Other clubs must look at Claudio Ranieri and Leicester and think, “hang on a second, if they can do that, then why can’t we?”. And it’s great. You don’t need Russian billionaires or a royal family from the Middle East throwing buckets of cash at a club to bring in huge names. Leicester City are the proof.

And good luck to the Foxes in the future. I can’t wait to see them in the Champions League next season. As for Gary Lineker’s underpants?  Not so much!


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Burnley promoted while Leicester within touching distance of history

There were incredible scenes at Turf Moor this evening following Burnley’s 1-0 victory over QPR. Sean Dyche’s men came into the fixture with the knowledge that a victory would guarantee them a top two finish in the Championship.

Sam Vokes’ 61st minute goal was enough for the Clarets, which prompted jubilant scenes and an old school pitch invasion following the referees whistle. Images of Joey Barton being mobbed like a Beatle circa 1964, was a far cry from the comments from Burnley fans who were unsure, to say the least, of the Liverpudlian’s inclusion in the squad months ago. It just goes to show.

Meanwhile eyes will be firmly fixed on events at Stamford Bridge where Chelsea face Tottenham. Anything other than a victory against the Blues for Mauricio Pochettino’s men, and Leicester will be crowned Premier League champions – something they were famously 5000/1 to do at the start of the season.

Personally, I hope to see Leicester do it. I think everyone does. Except Spurs fans that is. Will history be made at the Bridge tonight? We’ll find out tonight.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

When Souey caused Turkish delight (and drama).

One of the most memorable moments from the Istanbul Derby (known locally as the Kıtalararası Derbi), happened twenty years ago this week.

In April ’96, Graeme Souness made headlines when he planted a massive Galatasaray flag into the centre circle of the pitch of fierce arch-rivals Fenerbahçe after his Galatasaray side had beaten them in the Turkish Cup final.

Needless to say, the Istanbul Derby is one of the most tense fixtures in world sport. The mustachioed Scotsman near caused a riot that night, yet his actions made him a hero among the Galatsaray faithful, who compared him to national hero Ulibati Hasan, who was killed as he planted the Ottoman flag during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Galatasaray fans haven’t forgotten him.


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Blitzkrieg Klopp

It was the stuff of dreams. For the neutral, it was utterly thrilling. For the Liverpool supporters, it was sheer ecstacy. Liverpool’s Europa Cup quarter final second-leg tie against Borussia Dortmund was one of those nights that had everything. It was like Istanbul of the Klopp era.

Initially 2-0 down after nine minutes, then it was 2-1. But when the great Marco Reus put Dortmund into a 3-1 lead on the night, which left Liverpool needing three goals to progress, there was a silence over Anfield, and the keyboard warriors of Twitter and Facebook descended into a verbal crusade against the Reds. It was a mountain to climb.

But somehow Klopp’s men pulled it back against his former side. A goal from Phillippe Coutinho on 66 minutes, followed by another from defender Mamadou Sakho twelve minutes later brought the two sides even on the night, before leaving it to the very last minute when defender Dejan Lovren won the game with towering header.

“We might have got a little bit lucky,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp after the match. “But we never stopped trying”. And that, dear readers, is what makes football great. The Klopp effect is in full swing.


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Great players don’t always make great managers.

As full time rang out in the Volkswagen Arena, Zinedine Zidane walked into the tunnel knowing that he has to lead his Real Madrid side back from a two goal deficit against a Wolfsburg side that they were supposed to be favourites against.

Things haven’t been going to well for Zizou. Along with the Champions League loss, the derby defeat to Atléti is a big no-no for the former World Cup winner’s coaching CV for the Real Madrid faithful. While Zidane likely won’t be sacked immediately, a swift exit from the Champions League, and Florentino Perez may not stick with the Frenchman after the season’s end.


But other high profile players have also had a go of management. Some have done enormously well at both sides of the beautiful game – think Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello, Diego Simeone or Giovanni Trapattoni. But some less so.

One of the greatest players of all time Diego Maradona. A genius on the ball, his managerial record hasn’t set the world on fire. The Argentine, with one-time team mate Carlos Fren, led Mandiyú of Corrientes (1994) and Racing Club (1995) in management, but with little success. Years later, el Diego became manager of the national team for two controversy-filled years, before deciding to take up the role of boss of Dubai-based club Al Wasl in the UAE Pro-League. He was sacked after a year.


Bobby Charlton is one of the greatest Englishmen to ever play. They’ve recently named a stand after him at Old Trafford. When Charlton became the manager of Preston North End in 1973, he signed his former United and England team-mate Nobby Stiles as player-coach. His first season ended in relegation.

Arguably the greatest Bulgarian to ever kick a ball is the great Hristo Stoichkov. His management skills left a lot to be desired, having once claimed that he “doesn’t believe in tactics”. The former Barcelona star failed to guide Bulgaria to the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 followed by a disastrous short stint at Celta Vigo which saw the club relegated.

Let’s hope Zizou doesn’t end up in that kind of a bracket.


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Cantona, van Basten and other players whose career was cut short.

Dean Ashton scored a beaut of a bicycle kick Monday during his former team-mate Mark Noble’s testimonial match at Upton Park. It brought back memories. In his prime, Ashton had everything it took to succeed as a player at the highest level. Sadly in late-2009, the former Norwich striker was forced to retire after failing to recover from a long-term ankle injury sustained during international duty with England a year previous.

But he is not the only player who has cut a great career in football short.

Eric Cantona famously quit football at the age of 30. But not due to injury. Age 30 is when some players are at the peak of their powers and the Frenchman was certainly a prominent player in the English game. Some Premier League players will remember Espen Baardsen, the former Tottenham goalkeeper, who hung up his boots (and gloves) in 2003 at the age of 25 having claimed to have simply lost interest in the game.



David Bentley was once described by former England manager Steve McClaren as “the next David Beckham”. The player had buckets of talent. He retired in 2014 at the age of 29 – and he had been without a club for year previous to that. But it could be worse – he now owns a restaurant in Marbella in Spain.

Many will remember Fabrice Muamba, who, at the age of 24, suffered a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Spurs in 2012, from which he recovered despite his heart having stopped for an astonishing 78 minutes.


And of course, and possibly the greatest player to not play a lengthy career is the great Marco van Basten. The Dutch superstar played his last game in 1993 at the age of 28 due to an injury that forced his retirement two years later. The three-time Ballon d’Or winner. managed to enjoy a decent career in the game as a manager, having been boss of the Netherlands, Ajax, Heerenveen and AZ. He’s currently the assistant manager for the Netherlands.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)