Darren tipped to stop Red Devils

Irish Independent sports news editor and Hammers fan Shane Scanlon says Darren Randolph can excel again when Republic of Ireland take on Belgium at Euro 2016...

Darren Randolph passed his first test at Euro 2016 with a solid display in Ireland's 1-1 draw with Sweden on Monday, but the West Ham United goalkeeper will know a more searching test of his talents awaits against Belgium in Bordeaux.

Without ever coming under too much pressure, Randolph did what he had to do in the Stade de France and, crucially, he did it with the confidence of a man who's keen to repay the faith that Martin O'Neill has put in him.

Going into the tournament, Randolph could not have been certain that he would be thrust into the No1 spot ahead of the experienced Shay Given or Sheffield Wednesday's in-form Keiren Westwood.

The position was up for grabs, but what O'Neill and assistant Roy Keane saw at training – and also in West Ham's closing Premier League games after he replaced the injured Adrian – was a hugely determined 29-year-old eager to hold his hands up for the job.

The Bray, County Wicklow native did everything you would hope to see from an international goalkeeper against Sweden in Paris. He showed a good command of his area, plucked a few crosses out of the sky, fed his kick-outs to green jerseys and made one good save from a misdirected Ciaran Clark clearance.

Remarkably, he didn't have a single Swedish effort to save (Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company had seven shots on goal and none on target!) and there was little he could do about the goal that Ireland did concede, with the unfortunate Clark heading an Ibrahimovic cross into his own net.
Randolph and his back-four can expect to be involved from the start, but despite the long list of attacking wizards which Marc Wilmots has at his disposal the goalkeeper should have nothing to fear
The chances of Randolph not having a single Belgian shot to save are slim in the extreme. Europe’s top-rated team possess some of the world’s most talented footballers and went into the tournament as one of the favourites to go all the way.

Not for the first time, however, the sum of the team’s parts didn’t meet their individual valuation in the opening match against Italy and a 2-0 defeat was not in the script.

As a result, Belgian backs are suddenly up against a wall and the Red Devils of international football are sure to come out with pitchforks waving.

Randolph and his back-four can expect to be involved from the start, but despite the long list of attacking wizards which Marc Wilmots has at his disposal – Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi and Christian Benteke – the goalkeeper should have nothing to fear.

Last August, Randolph was in the West Ham goal as the Irons bridged a 52-year gap at Anfield by inflicting a 3-0 drubbing on Liverpool. Among the home team that day was Benteke who failed to get the get the better of the visiting goalkeeper so that experience will have done Ireland’s No 1 no harm at all. You can watch highlights of West Ham's historic 3-0 Premier League win at Anfield here.

Indeed, Randolph can take plenty of heart from another Anfield appearance last season when he was man of the match in West Ham’s 0-0 draw in the FA Cup – making a superb triple save that saw him twice deny Benteke – and he was also between the posts for the replay at the Boleyn Ground where both Benteke and Origi failed to beat him, helping the Hammers to a dramatic 2-1 win in extra-time. Facing down the Belgians has not unnerved him.

So it was interesting to hear Roy Keane declare in the run-up to Saturday’s match that Ireland have have no reason to be afraid of their much-vaunted opponents.

The FIFA world rankings might have Wilmots’ side at No 2 and Ireland 31 places behind them, but we’ve already seen in France that past performance counts for little. Randolph is one Irishman who has shown that he’s no hostage to reputation and expect him to re-inforce that in Bordeaux.

With Sweden losing to Italy on Friday afternoon, Ireland’s chances of qualifying out of Group E have been enhanced such that, should they beat Belgium they will be almost certain of reaching the round of 16.