Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Euro 2012 Team Preview: Ireland

There's an Irish proverb, not recognised by many, which goes like this: "An rud is annamh is iontach." It translates as what's seldom is wonderful. With Ireland qualifying for their first major international tournament in ten years there couldn't be a more apt time for it.

Boring football often breeds success. One of the most famous examples of this can be taken from Greece's recent shock European Championship win in 2004. Otto Rehhagel's team had been organised in such a way that they had effectively 'padlocked' their defence, conceding no goals in the knock-out stages, with a particular focus on set-pieces. It was, in fact, a set-piece that handed them the Henri Delaunay trophy in the final against Portugal.

Trapattoni's Ireland are styled in very much the same way as Greece were back then. Knowing he had limited resources to work with, Trapattoni set about strengthening the core of the Irish defence when he arrived, which had hemorrhaged goals under the leadership of former Irish international Steve Staunton ("Nightmare in Nicosia" anyone?).

The 73-year-old wily Italian was hired with the aim of qualifying Ireland - "supposed to be a first rate team", according to Trapattoni - for their first international competition to once again rub shoulders with the big boys of European and international football. He very nearly succeeded in 2009 as he successfully led Ireland out of their group but left France aggrieved at what tarnished Thierry Henry's reputation among many.

They were handed a slightly easier group in qualifying for the Euros as Russia, the lowest ranked of the pot one teams, and Slovakia, the second lowest ranked of the pot two teams, were drawn alongside Ireland. Trapattoni manufactured five clean sheets on his way to once again achieving a play-off spot, earning clean sheets home and away against a dangerous Slovakian side. Ireland were also the only side in the group to take maximum points from Armenia, whose side sprung many surprises throughout the qualifying campaign, including a 4-0 thumping away to Slovakia in the second last fixture round of the group, effectively ruining the Slovakian's chances of qualification. That meant all Ireland had to do was gain a point against Armenia in the final game to ensure their progress. The Irish won 2-1.

Perhaps the most defining fixture of Ireland's Euro campaign was in Moscow as Richard Dunne threw caution to the wind and inspired Trapattoni's dogged defence to a well-deserved point. In a game where Ireland were constantly on the back foot, the defensive masterclass from Dunne, throwing himself into tackles, blocks and steering a sure goal off the line, was so good he was humorously christened "Minister of Defence" back home.

In the play-offs, amid some confusion over Ireland being a seeded team or not after qualifying, they were luckily handed Estonia and duly dispatched them 5-1 on aggregate. That first leg in Tallinn saw the Irish score four times for the first time in a competitive match in nearly five years as they took a decisive step in reaffirming their status amongst Europe's elite. Three days later they confirmed it with a 1-1 draw at the Aviva Stadium.

These European Championships may well be the final time the remaining players of the 'Golden Generation' get to feature on an international stage. Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and John O'Shea were all part of that illustrious, unprecedented under-16 and 18 European Championship double winning side under the tutelage of Brian Kerr - in '96 and '98 respectively - and have preceded to have impressive careers both with club and country. Although, Robbie Keane, Ireland's all-time record goalscorer with 53, has voiced uncertainty over his international future beyond the current summer, bringing to light what many knew but refused to acknowledge about these current crop of players that all good things eventually come to an end.

With many of the Irish squad pushing their thirties and Trapattoni probably only continuing until the 2014 World Cup campaign, now seems the best time for the Boys in Green to deliver performances the country can be proud of before the likes of James McClean, Séamus Coleman and James McCarthy et al are all passed the torch to lead their country into a new, prodigious - and perhaps even more successful - era.

The Opponents


Croatia qualified for this summer's Euros with a few bumps along the way, including an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at the hands of Georgia. They recovered from the loss with a 2-1 return victory, followed by three more wins and a defeat thus sealing them a play-off berth. They were drawn against a young Turkish side who pipped Belgium to second on the last day and managed a surprise 3-0 win away in Istanbul, more or less securing their Euro 2012 spot as they held Turkey to a stalemate in the return leg.

Slaven Bilic, the manager of Croatia who is leaving following the competition to take up the post as manager of Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia, has said he "feels" for Ireland as they are Croatia's best chance to cash in on three valuable points. If the fixture is anything like last year, Ireland should be more than capable in gaining a point from Bilic's men. But, in a group where maximum points are required, a win must be the sole aim for both sides in the group's opening game.

The One to Watch:

Croatia boast many stars, from Eduardo da Silva to Darijo Srna, but their most dangerous and influential is Tottenham's Luka Modric. This is the 24-year-old's second Euro Championships and was part of the squad that were a penalty-shootout away from making the semi-finals four years ago. Modric made UEFA's Team of the Tournament, following his showing In Austria and Switzerland. In Modric, Croatia possess an incredible passing range and, more often than not, he is the man that makes the difference. In 2011, when Croatia played Ireland in the Aviva Stadium, Modric, sporting the no.10 shirt that day, was at the heart of everything good for the visitors. If his performances for Tottenham are anything to go by his presence may be felt when Ireland as Croatia lock horns in Poznan on June 10.


Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy conceded just two goals in ten games as their qualification was secured with a game left to play. This summer Prandelli has promised to play "in an attacking style inspired by the 1970's Total Football", which will be an interesting and refreshing alternative considering Italy's famed history as a defensive team. His inclusion of the troublesome Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, who recently overcame a heart defect, could spell trouble for the Irish in the last group stage fixture on June 18.

When quizzed on Ireland, Prandelli, who served as a player under Trapattoni at Juventus, had nothing but admiration for Trappatoni and the Irish squad:

“In truth, though, it will be an honour and a pleasure to meet Ireland and Trap, I feel very linked to him, he was my coach at Juventus for six years. For me, he’s a reference point and not just from the viewpoint of football technique.

“Trap’s Ireland will make everyone struggle, us included. We have to start off with that in mind, otherwise the game against Ireland will be very, very difficult."

The One to Watch:

The player to watch for Italy at the Euros is none other than Juventus' Andrea Pirlo himself. Having swapped Milan for Turin last summer, he, among others, orchestrated an incredible run which was rewarded with Juventus' 28th - or perhaps their 30th - Serie A title as they also ended the league season unbeaten. Á la Modric, Pirlo's range of passing can be a joy to behold at times and if Ireland allow him sufficient time on the ball he might just prove the difference between the two sides come June.


After a tiring season domestically many are expecting Spain to finally surrender their international dominance at Poland and Ukraine this summer. Having lost to Portugal, Italy, England and Argentina since winning the World Cup in 2010, teams they are competing against will know that Spain are no longer the 'invincibles' that they were two years ago. Having David Villa and Carles Puyol, their talisman and captain respectively, ruled out through injury doesn't help either.

It's for those reasons that Germany have overtaken Spain as the public's favourites to win the European Championships in July. However, in an interview given to UEFA.com, Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque spoke about how Spain must forget their previous glories and focus on the present if they are to become the first European nation to win three successive international tournaments:

"We can be proud of what we've achieved, but at the same time it belongs to the past, and we have to face the future.

"And if we want to keep our feet on the ground there is no other possibility than to forget that we won it, and prepare for the future."

The One to Watch:

In a team full of "mythological gods", as vividly described by former Barçelona player Edgar Davids, Spain's most beloved mythological god is the irreplaceable Xavi. Catalan by birth, Xavi has enjoyed one of his finest seasons to date for Barçelona, scoring 14 goals as well as contributing a handful of assists. He has benefited from this thanks to Guardiola playing Xavi "10-15 metres higher up the pitch", which has enabled him to contribute to more goals during the past few seasons for Barça. After a tiring season, while he may not be at his best, Xavi's influence always tells as his constant recycling of the ball and eye through the needle passes have made Spain the dominant forces they are today. Like Modric and Pirlo, he is the one Ireland should pay most of their attention towards come June 14.


Placed in an intensely difficult group for just their second appearance in the competition, Trappatoni and Ireland know that good results will be difficult to obtain. His type of football, while it may discourage certain fans, is certainly effective when results are needed. It's not pretty but as Trapattoni himself once said: "A beautiful game is for twenty-four hours in the newspapers; a result stands forever".

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