It's draw or bust against Spain - but green throng determined to remain hopeful

 

THE REPUBLIC of Ireland face a draw-or-bust situation at the Arena Gdansk tonight when they take on Spain in their second game of Euro 2012. A win over the reigning European and World Champions would be even better. But after Sunday’s 3-1 loss to Croatia, avoiding another defeat is now the minimum requirement to keep Ireland’s tournament alive.

The game will take place against the dramatic backdrop of a city where, 30 years ago, a shipworkers’ union began a process that led eventually to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The challenge facing Giovanni Trapattoni’s team is a small one by comparison – although the bookmakers seem to think otherwise. You can get odds as high as 14-1 against them winning, while even a draw is available at 11-2, suggesting the markets consider Ireland’s continued survival at the tournament a higher risk, currently, than Spanish 10-year bonds.

Yet the thousands of green-shirted supporters thronging the old town last night remain hopeful. And yesterday, in public at least, the manager talked about playing to win. “Psychologically we have overcome the defeat to Croatia,” he said. “We are back to believing in ourselves.”

In marked contrast with the Croatian game, however, Trapattoni declined to name his team yet, while hinting he might deploy a five-man midfield to counter the brilliance of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and the rest. This could mean a lonely night for Robbie Keane as the likely sole Irish striker.

A win for Spain would leave them on four points after two games, still unsure of qualification but out of Ireland’s reach, even if Trapattoni’s team were to win their last game. Meanwhile, whatever the result of this evening’s other Group C match, either Croatia or Italy will also have a minimum of four points.

Among those taking an intense interest in the outcome are the campsite owners of Poznan, the city to which Trapattoni’s side return for the final game. A spokesman for one, the Camper Van Village, said it hosted 850 Irish fans on the night of the Croatia game. But he added that if Ireland were still in with a chance of qualification by next Monday, they would be preparing for 1,500.

In the meantime at least one group of athletic Irishmen have already achieved their Euro 2012 objectives. The nine-strong “Pedal to Poland” cycling team were on the outskirts of Gdansk yesterday after a two-week, 1,500km trek for charity. This morning they will be given a police escort into the city and be welcomed by the mayor.

Five of the nine have tickets for the match. The other four were still looking last night, along with hundreds of other Irish fans. How much they can enjoy the game after 1,500km in the saddle is another matter. Even more than the rest of us, perhaps, they may spend much of the 90 minutes sitting on the edge of their seats.