Reality bites hard for Ireland
By Liam Mackey
The despair we can handle.
The anger and dismay and disappointment too. We can even feel comfortable with a certain level of hopelessness.
It’s the hope that crucifies us every time.
Going into this tournament, I was hardly alone in predicting that Ireland would fail to get out of their group. Once the draw was made and Spain, Italy and Croatia came out of the pot, the consensus was that the challenge could hardly be greater for the lowest-ranked team in the group. After all, this was a team which rode its luck on many occasions on the rocky road to Poland. And a team which needed pretty much everything to go right on the night if it was to entertain any realistic ambition of causing an upset. An ordinary team of which we demanded extraordinary deeds.
And yet, we looked at that fourteen-game unbeaten run and recognised that such consistency simply cannot be attributed entirely to chance. We saw how well the Irish preparations had gone in the weeks leading up to Poland, with all the major injury concerns apparently resolved just in time for the big kick-off. We took encouragement from the fact that Ireland would be able to field their strongest eleven in the opening game and, in our mind’s eye, we saw one of those nights unfolding when Aiden McGeady would announce himself as a star player at Euro 2012 and Robbie Keane would remind everyone of why he is the country’s all-time record-scorer and captain. And, most of all, perhaps, we figured that with wily old Giovanni Trapattoni on our side, we’d have a genuine world-class act to whom, after a long life in the game, the football gods owed the reward of at least one happy international tournament.
And then the match kicked off in Poznan and three minutes later Ireland were a goal down.
I think that’s what you call a reality check.
By the end of the 90 plus minutes on Sunday night, green-tinged optimism had been flattened and the Irish expectations firmly put in their place. True, there were mitigating factors: a handful of the more experienced players, John O’ Shea, Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady being the most notable offenders, seriously underperformed, while a couple more seemed overawed and inhibited by the scale of the occasion. And, given the limited amount of talent available to Giovanni Trapattoni, his side simply cannot afford even a single first-choice player being less than totally on his game, if they are to harbour any realistic hopes of getting the better of a team ranked above them for only the second time in competitive battle since the Dutch were turned over at Lansdowne Road in 2001. Incidentally, there, in a nutshell, is the main reason why it has been ten long years since Ireland last gate-crashed a major tournament.
It’s also true that, on Sunday night, Lady Luck entirely deserted a team upon which she had liberally bestowed her graces over the two years of a qualifying campaign. From marginal offsides to penalty claims dismissed to the cruel timing of all three Croatian goals, almost anything which could have gone wrong for Ireland went badly wrong.
And, yet, all of those elements were still only footnotes to the main story: Croatia played a brand of football which exposed a huge gulf in class between their comfort zone and the level at which this Irish team routinely operates. And it was a disparity personified in the wondrous performance of Luka Modric, who seemed to play the whole match on his own pitch and in his own good time.
Someone said afterwards that Keith Andrews had been “immense” for Ireland. But it’s not downplaying his considerable contribution to the cause on Sunday night to point out that even his best efforts were almost casually eclipsed by Modric every time he put his foot on the ball and allowed himself a moment to choose from a menu of appetising options.
As the agonised post-mortem continued on the journey back up from Poznan to Sopot yesterday, I was reflecting on the world of difference between Ireland’s best midfielder and his Croatian counterpart. “Ah, but you’re not comparing like with like there,” said a colleague. Which, of course, is precisely the point.
Giovanni Trapattoni didn’t do much that was different on Sunday to any other game he’s helmed as Ireland manager and even, when his side were 3-1 down, remained true to his damage-limitation instincts by sending on Simon Cox with a brief to both attack and defend. Given Srna’s threat on Ireland’s vulnerable right flank, and the always real prospect that the Croats could add to their tally, there was a certain logic to the move yet, on the face of it, if ever a situation cried out for the wow factor which James McClean might have brought with him, it was when Ireland found themselves two goals down with time running out. And since Trapattoni’s commitment to the result above all else is what distinguishes between success and failure for the Italian, then it follows that he too came badly out of the game.
The scale of the challenge facing Ireland now is formidable, even if only as a salvage operation. As one fan ruefully put it yesterday, an Irish side which couldn’t cope with Luka Modric is now set to face five or six versions of him wearing the red of Spain.
Giovanni Trapattoni has often joked that, despite being born on St Patrick’s Day, he is at pains to inform the FAI from the off that he’s no miracle-worker. But something in the realm of the miraculous is precisely what will be required on Thursday.
Seek solace in prayer, if you will. Just don’t dare allow yourselves to hope, is all.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reservedHome