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Saturday, June 09, 2012
Fourteen-match unbeaten run: It hasn’t all been plain sailing — remember Moscow? — but Ireland return to Europe’s top table tomorrow night on the back of an impressive unbeaten streak stretching back to 3-2 friendly defeat against Uruguay in March of last year.
Trapattoni’s men have picked some noteworthy results along the way, including a friendly win over final Group C opponents Italy and a draw in another friendly against Croatia. Ireland will certainly not be the most naturally gifted team in the finals but under Trapattoni they will be hard to beat.
Croatian arrogance: They say pride comes before a fall and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Croatia view Ireland as a routine assignment before the real business of toppling Italy and Spain starts. Slaven Bilic has been dismissive of Ireland’s threat in the build-up to the finals and although the Croatia manager suggested this week that his words had been taken out of context he still got a dig in about Ireland playing ‘simple football’. Bilic’s comments won’t have gone unnoticed in the Irish dressing-room.
Record in major finals: Okay, so we don’t win many games in major finals (just three from 16), but we don’t lose many either (5-16 in normal time). History provides further encouragement in the fact we have never lost in our opening game of a major finals. Maintaining that record tomorrow night will be crucial — a draw would be a decent start but a win would mean reaching the knock-outs stages would be a distinct possibility.
Increased squad strength: While Trapattoni will stick with the tried and trusted, the form of some of his squad players in the pre-tournament friendlies provided much to be encouraged about. Jon Walters looked sharp against both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Hungary, while Shane Long took his goal against the Bosnians with assurance. James McClean’s directness makes him a wild card option while Stephen Hunt also impressed against Hungary. There are options off the bench.
Robbie Keane: He may have his critics but the Ireland captain’s goalscoring record — 53 goals from 117 games — is exceptional by any standards. Crucially he is one of the few Irish players with experience of playing in a major finals. Back then Keane was one of the stars of the 2002 World Cup, scoring last-gasp equalisers against Germany and Spain as Ireland overcame the trauma of Saipan to reach the last 16. Keane’s ability to snaffle a goal in a big game makes him a huge asset.
Luca Modric: The Tottenham midfielder is the undoubted star of a technically gifted Croatian team. He comes into the tournament on the back of an exhausting season but, sadly for Ireland, Slaven Bilic feels he has now recovered fully. ‘‘He’s ready to play his role,’’ was how Bilic ominously put it. If Ireland are to emerge from tomorrow night with a positive result — Modric is the man who’ll have to be stopped.
Trap’s formation uncertainty: Given Ireland’s long unbeaten record and Trapattoni’s experience, his 11th hour wobble in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s hair-raising 0-0 draw against Hungary was a surprise. The manner in which Ireland were overrun in midfield in Budapest brought back unhappy memories of the games against Russia in the qualifying campaign but it was still a shock to see Trapattoni, albeit briefly, unnerved to such an extent that he pondered ditching his 4-4-2 formation. The Italian can only hope his uncertainty didn’t transmit itself on to his players.
Big-match record: One of the biggest concerns heading into this tournament is Ireland’s record against higher ranked teams in competitive matches over the last decade. Excluding the World Cup play-off against France in Paris where we led after 90 minutes you have to go all the way back in 2001 and the Roy Keane-inspired victory over the Netherlands to find a triumph against the elite. It’s hard to see Ireland emerging from Group C unless they pick up at least one win.
Midfield vulnerability: Ireland’s inability to keep the ball has been a persistent theme throughout the Trapattoni era. Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews can struggle against technically adept passing teams such as Croatia. It’s hard to see that changing at this point and Ireland could be in for a long and testing night.
Defeat would end party before it begins: For all the understandable excitement and euphoria at being at the party there’s a harsh truth that’s hard to escape: lose tomorrow night and the finals adventure could be over almost as soon as it begins. World and European champions Spain lie in wait, Italy then. According to the old cliché the next game is always the most important one. For Ireland, it is the only one in terms of avoiding defeat.
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