Already we are seeking miracles
EURO 2012 GROUP C REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1 CROATIA 3:WE FORGOT. We forgot about how just how heartbreaking these Irish football nights can be. On a rainy night in Poznan, Croatia whistled three goals dusted with strangeness past Ireland to leave Giovanni Trapattoni’s team in a bleak place after their first game of Euro 2012. Beaten 3-1 and preparing to face Spain, the world champions, on Thursday. Already we are seeking minor miracles.
It was one of those nights when the magnitude of the occasion overshadowed the football which followed. Somewhere among the Irish flags draped over Poznan is a tricolour carrying a line from an old Pogues classic: You’re The Measure of My Dreams.
And the slow, passionate build up was everything the Irish players could have imagined. Even Trapattoni, who has seen it all, seemed moved.The reception they received was mind-blowing and the wildness of that greeting was still ringing in their ears when Mario Mandzukic stole a header which left us chasing the game.
As the night went on, Ireland were outmuscled and out-finessed and chased a moving shadow in Luka Modric, a footballer who seems lighter than air apart from those moments when he sets his mind on a stinging shot. Croatia had the luck but they also ran the show for much of the night. Mandzukic’s two headed goals proved a wrecking ball for Ireland – and he would send Giovanni Trapattoni flying as well after an accidental collision.
The saving grace of Sean St Ledger’s goal in the 19th minute – a typical full back’s goal, full of blustering heart and courage to get a head to Aidan McGeady’s precise free – made another one of those eternally glorious Irish football nights possible.
It was one of those goals that immediately entered the pantheon of sporting moments which seem less like goals than patriotic gestures. For those dizzying few moments, St Ledger found himself in the same company as Ray Houghton and Ronnie Whelan: he had scored a goal that was immediately branded into the mind of an entire generation.
But the goal was just a reprieve from a night that was one-way traffic. There were bad omens in Mandzukic’s early goal, one of those uncanny and maddeningly avoidable goals which seem to visit upon Donegal goalkeepers on these epochal nights.
Darijo Srna’s cross deflected of Keith Andrews and spun with infuriating perfection to Mandzukic who half stumbled towards the ball and sent a flat, basic header which wrong-footed Shay Given for a split second and found its way into the net.
“It was difficult,” Giovanni Trapattoni would say later.
“Tomorrow we will have time to clarify what happened in that first half. I said yesterday we were ready. But after two minutes we concede this goal. I think Shay not saw the ball because he has three or four players in front of him. And psychologically, we had a fear and had no reaction at this moment.”
In the seconds afterwards, the Irish were dumbstruck. And if St Ledger’s equaliser restored faith, it was a brief reprieve.
For after about half an hour, Croatia began to cast a spell. Modric floated around the fringes doing as he pleased. The Croatians broke through the Irish cover with ease and picked out their passes with impunity and they pushed up on the Irish rearguard, forcing Richard Dunne and John O’Shea into a nerve wracking series of backpasses to Given. In the first 20 minutes, the Irish goalkeeper had completed more passes than its midfield.
Down the sideline, Slaven Bilic wore an accountant’s suit and a hip-hop star’s beanie cap and with chiselled mournful face, he savoured a magical night unfolding. Bilic spent the night in a state of high anxiety and, later, delight.
“They deserved to win because they were superb at midfield. I tried to change because I was thinking also about the next game. We did play better in the second,” said Trapattoni.
What did the Irish offer against this maelstrom of lucky breaks and technical craft? They did what the Irish teams always do: they gave everything. The Croatians made them chase and sometimes they seemed to toy with them. Dunne was sure-footed under constant pressure, Keith Andrews was still testing the Croatians in the final minutes and Damien Duff gave all he could.
Given had a torrid night but his concentration never wavered.
Ireland were outplayed at times but they didn’t quit and Keane fashioned a centre-forward’s penalty when the Croatian crowd was baying for blood as the Irish had refused to kick the ball out of play for an injured player. In the furious atmosphere, referee Bjorn Kuipers waved the play on. Hopes faded after that. And so to an appointment with Spain on Thursday night.
“I am sorry for the Irish,” Slaven Bilic sighed afterwards and the big man seemed genuine.
“They were looking for their chance in this match but it was the same for us. We are in a great position now; we are at the top of the group. But I am sure Ireland will play good and hard matches against Italy and Spain, but they are more creative teams. On the other side, they will leave some space for Ireland.”
Maybe, Bilic seemed to be saying. A half chance, a bit of luck. But its going to take something heaven sent now.