From ‘Olé’ to ‘oh-no’ as Croats crash party

If ‘doing a Greece’ seemed improbable, ‘doing a Switzerland’ and beating Spain on Thursday seems almost impossible, based on this toothless display

From ‘Olé’ to ‘oh-no’ as Croats crash party

Sopot may be ‘home’ for the Irish team throughout their stay at Euro 2012 but Poznan grew on the thousands of Irish supporters who swarmed into this town of just over half a million people in Western Poland in recent days.

A city of cobbles and colourful burgher houses, it has been invaded by everyone from Napoleon to the Nazis and it owes it’s existence to it’s place on an ancient road that started in Paris and ended in Moscow. All in all, then, an appropriate stage for this Irish team’s return to the big time last night.

The two most iconic events of Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure — Thierry Henry’s handball and Richard Dunne’s heroics — were recorded in the French and Russian capitals respectively but there were high hopes of both being outranked by the second game in Group C.

Soaring levels of confidence among the green hordes beforehand were matched by bullish utterings from the Irish players and management in the run-up which, if truth be told, were slightly disconcerting to those in tune with the national predilection for pessimism.

Bilic had already announced his intention to leave for Lokomotiv Moscow after this tournament and, though Croatian man of the year only a few years back, he had shipped an enormous amount of criticism from supporters and media in the run-up.

Confidence was not high prior to kick-off, what with their’s being a side of mostly ageing players and one that has looked ponderous and unimaginative against well-drilled opposition, but they did expect a winning start against an unfancied Irish side.

What they couldn’t have anticipated was a pair of gifts from a team which had conceded just three goals in 14 games in the approach to these European Championships even if there were other indicators aside from the goals to bolster the case for Croatia’s dominance.

By half-time they had enjoyed 58% of possession, completed over 100 passes more than Giovanni Trapattoni’s men and won five corners compared to none and realisation dawned even then that, their equaliser aside, Ireland had been toothless.

Then another Mario Mandzukic effort found the net off the back of Given’s head and even with almost half of football still to go it was apparent that their proud record of never having lost an opening game at a major finals was about to fall.

It was an unsettling thought and the mood darkened every time the mind reverted back to the day’s first game between Spain and Italy, one which offered painfully little succour to a travelling band of fans that numbered anything up to 25,000 people.

As usual, they came from all corners of the country and continent. Flags declared allegiance to Ballybrack, Brosna, Buttevant and Berlin. Camper vans rented and driven across Europe from Amsterdam and Brussels parked next to cars that bore registrations and dirt of Irish origin.

The Croatians travelled in numbers too but it was the Irish who took over the stadium and the green version of ‘The Poznan’ is certain to be a fixture at games on Lansdowne Road for many a year to come. Not just yet, though.

Two games against the two group favourites await. Talk of Ireland ‘doing a Greece’ at this championship has ground to an unceremonious halt. It will be replaced in the days to come with the exhortation that they must now ‘do a Switzerland’ and surprise the Spanish.

It’s impossible to see.

Bilic had changed his tune time and again during the build-up to this tournament when asked about Ireland, alternating between tones of great respect and almost outright dismissal depending on the interviewer’s country of origin.

That mask slipped once and for all on Saturday when he spoke about the predictability of their forthcoming opponents and, grating though it was and still is as a summation, it is ringing true after a sobering first outing in Poland.

It’s only a week since Trapattoni seemed to suggest a change of approach or personnel in the wake of that fraught friendly in Budapest. In the end, it was dismissed as one of those ‘Lost in Translation’ moments which have peppered his time in charge.

Who knows? Maybe he really did see something that put the heart across him that night but it was much too late to go tinkering with a system that he himself had welded on to his players and team for four, long years.

Priority number one between now and Thursday will be the need to cut out the silly mistakes that contributed to their own downfall last night. Priority number two could well be a prayer or two in the newly-consecrated chapel in the Gdansk Arena.

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