Long wait for Sweden match keeps Ireland striker motivated
REUTERS - Ireland striker Shane Long is keen to carry the good form he showed towards the end of the Premier League season at Southampton into his country's opening Euro 2016 fixture against Sweden on Monday.
Despite being drawn in a tough Group E in France, Ireland will look to banish the demons of their disastrous European Championship campaign four years ago, where they lost all three matches, scoring once and conceding nine goals.
Long, who made two substitute appearances in 2012, said a win against Sweden at the Stade de France would put Ireland in a good position to qualify from a group which also includes Belgium and Italy.
"(In 2012) only two teams qualified, so I learned that if you can get three points out of the first game, you are sitting pretty in the group and will have a lot to play on," Long told UEFA's official website (www.uefa.com).
"That's why I'm aiming for the Sweden game... I've been waiting six months for it," he added of the expanded 24-team tournament that now allows the four best third-placed teams to advance to the knockout stages.
The 29-year-old played a key role for Southampton last season, scoring 13 goals in all competitions and helping the Saints qualify for the Europa League.
Long thanked club manager Ronald Koeman, who labelled him a more complete player, for his improvement over the course of the campaign.
"He's (Koeman) given me a lot of confidence over the last six months and he told me I was the first name on the team sheet, which is always nice for a striker to hear," Long said.
"(He's) really adapted and improved my game."
Ireland face Belgium on June 18, before finishing their group campaign against Italy four days later.
(Reporting by Nivedita Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by John O'Brien)