Euro 2012 preview: Republic of Ireland
As Ireland make a welcome return to the big stage, Paul Kelly assesses the men in green's chances of causing another upset or two in Ukraine and Poland
Believe it or not, this man is Italian...
After a decade of disappointments, Ireland are back in the big time Ã¢ÂÂ and itÃ¢ÂÂs all down to one man. Giovanni Trapattoni has earned a new contract and the undying gratitude of the Irish FA, whose Ã¢ÂÂ¬50m debt will be cut by at least Ã¢ÂÂ¬8 million from the Euro 2012 kitty.
The only third-seeded team at the start of the qualifying campaign to reach the finals, Ireland have made steady progress since Ã¢ÂÂTrapÃ¢ÂÂ succeeded Steve Staunton in 2008. They have climbed from 42nd to joint-18th in the FIFA rankings, losing only twice in 24 competitive matches under the 73-year-old, and came agonisingly close to reaching the 2010 World Cup until Thierry HenryÃ¢ÂÂs hand intervened.
But the 20,000 Green Army fans expected to travel to Poland are less than ecstatic about their teamÃ¢ÂÂs style of play. TrapÃ¢ÂÂs safety-first approach means little spectacle and a nagging sense that Ireland are selling themselves short in terms of quality, creativity and player development. Former Ireland manager Brian Kerr summed up the frustration of many after a drab 1-1 draw with the Czechs in February. Ã¢ÂÂHaving been away for a few years, I didnÃ¢ÂÂt see any of our qualifiers,Ã¢ÂÂ Kerr wrote in the Irish Times. Ã¢ÂÂI heard it was bad Ã¢ÂÂ but I didnÃ¢ÂÂt think it would be this shocking for 80 minutes.Ã¢ÂÂ
Does Trapattoni care? Not a bit. Ã¢ÂÂIf you want entertainment, go to La Scala [the Milan opera house],Ã¢ÂÂ he has told his critics more than once. In other words: never mind the quality, count the points. Likewise, media clamour for Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and James McClean to be given more prominent roles has largely fallen on deaf ears. McCarthy was forced to pull out due to a family illness, but Coleman was left out of the final 23 and McClean is far from certain to start.
Trap will rely on experience. Richard Dunne, Shay Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, all 2002 survivors, have 402 caps between them and John OÃ¢ÂÂShea and Kevin Doyle, another 121. Will it be enough in the Ã¢ÂÂother group of deathÃ¢ÂÂ?
Can younger stars like Long and McLean blend with the veterans of 2002?
Lesson from qualifying
Find an alternative to 4-4-2. Six wins, three draws and one defeat was enough to secure second place in Group B and follow it up with a comfortable play-off victory over Estonia, but the home matches against Russia (2-3) and Slovakia (0-0) were worrying: on both occasions Ireland were outnumbered in the middle of the park.
Defensive organisation. Under Trap, every player knows whatÃ¢ÂÂs expected of him. Defensive discipline led to a record eight successive clean sheets last year, a run which included a 2-0 friendly win against Italy. OÃ¢ÂÂShea, Dunne, Sean St Ledger and Stephen Ward form a solid unit, although behind them Given conceded two soft goals from long range against Armenia and Estonia. Dunne, in particular, is invaluable. Despite serving two suspensions, the hero of IrelandÃ¢ÂÂs amazing 0-0 draw in Moscow is the rock on which Trap builds his defence. TrapÃ¢ÂÂs team refuse to lie down and have developed a useful habit of scoring early and late. Under the Italian, 30 per cent of IrelandÃ¢ÂÂs goals in competitive matches have come in the first 15 minutes, and 21 per cent in the closing stages.
Trap doesnÃ¢ÂÂt expect central midfielders Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews to run the game, so Ireland often lose possession cheaply. Croatia, Spain and Italy will all expect to repeat RussiaÃ¢ÂÂs dominance, especially if Ireland resort to launching long, hopeful balls out of defence. Full-backs OÃ¢ÂÂShea and Ward are seldom encouraged to overlap, so a huge onus falls on wide midfielders Duff and Aiden McGeady to produce openings. Forward-thinking Duff and McGeady are also expected to track back when Ireland defend, though the Spartak Moscow player has improved considerably at doing this. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs a lack of variety in IrelandÃ¢ÂÂs play, which could be addressed by the introduction of the aforementioned youngsters. In fact, TrapÃ¢ÂÂs team are often at their best when they fall behind and have to adopt a less cautious approach, a situation in which impact substitute Stephen Hunt currently thrives.
Did you knowÃ¢ÂÂ¦?
In 15 finals matches since 1988, Ireland have scored more than a single goal only once (when they beat Saudi Arabia 3-0 in the 2002 World Cup). Even so, they have managed to reach the knockout stages in three of the four major tournaments theyÃ¢ÂÂve contested. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve also recorded a win and two draws against Italy under Trapattoni.
Darragh Maloney, RTE commentator
Ã¢ÂÂIreland must take something from the opener against Croatia. I think they will, so if Spain get three wins it will mean there is all to play for in IrelandÃ¢ÂÂs final match against Italy. IÃ¢ÂÂd love to say that an emerging Irish talent like McClean will make the biggest impact, but with Trapattoni the system comes first and players need time to be educated into it. Reading between the lines, the players would like to express themselves more. I donÃ¢ÂÂt expect Ireland to lose all three matches, but if that happened the FAI would be under pressure to replace Trapattoni.Ã¢ÂÂ
Pluck (and organisation) of Irish not enough.
The good thing about international football is the lack of 'boyhood club' gags
IrelandÃ¢ÂÂs top scorer in qualifying with seven goals, Robbie Keane remains his countryÃ¢ÂÂs most significant attacking threat. He may have lost some pace, but the captain still has the predatory instincts that have brought him 53 goals for his country. At the age of 32, this tournament could prove to be his last Ã¢ÂÂ howÃ¢ÂÂs that for incentive?
The Italian became Republic of Ireland manager in 2008 and almost took them to the 2010 World Cup. He is vastly experienced, winning league titles with six clubs as a player and manager. Having guided the Boys in Green through the play-offs, Ã¢ÂÂTrapÃ¢ÂÂ will be looking to cause a few upsets Ã¢ÂÂ especially against his homeland in the group stages.
How they play
Trapattoni prefers a rigid 4-4-2, with hard-working central midfielders adding steel in the middle of the park, wingers running with the ball and a supporting forward playing off the central striker. By having two banks of four behind the ball, Ireland are difficult to break down and can counter-attack quickly down the wings when in possession or with longer balls to the strikers. It has proved successful so far.
1988 First round
The Republic of Ireland are 80/1 to win Euro 2012, and 100/1 to win all three group games.
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FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark
Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews