Defeat shows Irish ill-equipped but not without glimmers of promise
GROUP C ITALY 2 REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 0:IRELAND’S ILL-fated European Championship adventure ended as it had begun back here in Poznan last night with a two-goal defeat that, despite some signs of improvement, served to underline how ill-equipped Giovanni Trapattoni’s side really arefor life at this level.
For most of a lively contest the Irish did enough to keep the hope alive that they might somehow salvage a point and some pride to take home with them from Poland.
But they were generally second-best and always up against it after Antonio Cassano had given the Italians the lead just over half an hour in. It was a soft goal and there could have been another one or two, but there were distinct signs of improvement too.
Showing more application and determination was only ever going to get them so far, though. What they lacked was the quality in pretty much every department that would have been required to be a real match for opponents like Italy, and when Mario Balotelli doubled his side’s advantage just after Keith Andrews had been sent off in the dying moments of the game, the scoreline better reflected the balance.
Trapattoni must have been encouraged by the start his side made, with early pressure forcing Italian mistakes and the Irish suddenly looking at least a little like their old selves.
Doyle, back leading the attack, made a storming start, covering ground to unsettle opponents and steal possession before turning and leading the charge back upfield.
Still, there was a touch of naivety to his decision to stay on his feet when he was clearly tugged by Andrea Barzagli inside the box and in front of the referee seven minutes in. He didn’t even get a corner and Federico Balzaretti showed how these situations can be handled rather more effectively shortly afterwards with the left back collapsed under a Robbie Keane nudge to win a free and relieve the pressure.
Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady both looked up for it and Keane was clearly more comfortable back playing in the deeper-lying role. Best of all, though, with the Italians playing Andrea Pirlo behind a more advanced midfield three, Andrews and Glenn Whelan did not, for the first time at this tournament, find themselves completely swamped.
Quite why Cesare Prandelli opted to allow the Irish to compete on equal terms in such a key area when their inability to cope when outnumbered had been at the heart of so many of their problems up to this was bewildering, but as the game progressed and Irish energy levels began to sag a little, it mattered less. The quality of the Italians simply began to tell.
This is not a side that closes opponents down with anything like the speed of the Spaniards but they still know better than most how to make life difficult for opponents in possession.
The Irish found themselves with more time and space to play with but often it was not enough and they completed only a little more than half the passes they attempted, compared to more than 80 per cent for Prandelli’s men, and some of the Irish errors were simply unforgivable at this level.
Still, there were clear signs of improvement and while the Italians created a handful of chances Given did not initially have a whole lot to do as Sean St Ledger and particularly, Richard Dunne recovered their knack for being in the right place at the right time.
St Ledger did especially well when Whelan played his side into trouble just over a half an hour in, with the centre back clearing off the line after Cassano had skipped past the Shay Given, but the goalkeeper had given him a very tight angle for the shot.
Trapattoni’s players soon compounded the original mistake, though, with Given awkwardly pushing a shot he should have controlled out for a corner, from which Cassano got ahead of Andrews to head in off the goalkeeper’s flailing arm.
It wasn’t the last time Given looked less than assured and when Antonio Di Natale produced a low-angled drive early in the second half, his failure to hold the ball or push it to safety might well have led to a second.
Still, they hung in there, with the midfield involved just enough to keep alive the idea that Ireland might have the makings of a productive break in them.
The sight of Doyle switching to the right wing after Shane Long replaced Aiden McGeady didn’t do much to fuel the fires of optimism and the approach didn’t last all that long with Jon Walters, in turn, replacing the Wolves striker.
But by then there had been a significant shift in the balance of things, with Ireland starting to exert some real pressure for spells and, courtesy of an Andrews free that Buffon could only parry into space, giving the Italians one of their first real frights of the night.
There were hints of ill-discipline too, with Danielle De Rossi and Buffon picking up needless bookings before Claudio Marchisio risked red by catching Andrews in the face while complaining an Irish wall wasn’t far enough back.
The referee, though, did Ireland few favours and showed no interest in their appeals. Instead, it was the Irish midfielder who was dismissed a few minutes later when he picked up his second booking of the evening.
His departure, with only a minute or so of normal time remaining, came too late to have a major impact on things, although almost from the restart of play the Italians had earned themselves another corner which, after the consistently impressive Pirlo had again floated the ball perfectly for him to the edge of the six yard box, Balotelli volleyed home brilliantly despite being under pressure from John O’Shea.
It was a cruel final reminder of the gulf in class between the teams.
Ireland scraped their way to results in qualifying. But once they got there, found they were simply no match for the best on one of the game’s greater stages.