Class of 2012 can secure a precious point

 

EURO 2012 POOL C, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND v CROATIAALMOST A quarter of a century after the Republic of Ireland’s last European Championship adventure kicked off in glorious style against England in Stuttgart, the Boys In Green are back and preparing to battle odds stacked every bit as high against them as they were at the country’s first appearance in a major football tournament.

Jack Charlton’s men missed out on extending their stay in Germany in cruel fashion when the Dutch scored late to send them crashing out. Yesterday, the man in the hot seat now claimed that making it out of one of the toughest groups is a realistic target and suggested he would be happy enough to go home having achieved that.

Just a few hours before the Greeks got things under way with an eventful game against Poland, there was no talk from the Italian of their remarkable success in 2004. Giovanni Trapattoni acknowledged that his side is almost certainly too dependent on a small core of key players to do any more than dream about a tilt at the title.

The example that seemed to spring to mind was Richard Dunne, who Trapattoni’s opposite number, Slaven Bilic, described yesterday as a most underestimated player. “If he had been English,” said the Croatian, “he would have been recognised as one of the greatest players in the Premier League.”

Dunne is likely to have to live up to that sort of billing over the next 10 days or so if Ireland are to spring a surprise and secure a top-two finish. The big centre back, though, has a remarkable track record of delivering for his country when it counts, turning in heroic performances on the biggest days. Indeed, if he could have replicated them at club level on a more consistent basis, it would surely have earned him the acclaim that Bilic believes he deserves.

The others to whom Ireland will look to for big performances are Robbie Keane, Aiden McGeady, Damien Duff and John O’Shea.

And Trapattoni will be relieved to see Shay Given come through training without any new problems yesterday. The 36-year-old showed in the first half against Hungary just how brilliant he can be at times and his presence is also a considerable psychological boost to the team.

The Italian will most likely be pleased too if, as expected, Bilic names a 4-4-2 formation for the game, although there tends to be a fair bit of tactical fluidity to the Croat’s manager’s line-ups.

The personnel side of things certainly seems to be fairly settled at this stage, with Danijel Pranjic expected to keep out Ivan Strinic at left-back and Ognjen Vukojevic rather than Tomislav Dujmovic likely to partner Luka Modric in midfield. In defence, Vedran Corluka looks to set to start, with the hamstring strain that prompted a visit to a Warsaw specialist yesterday not as bad as had initially been thought and if he does then it will almost certainly be at centre back, with 23-year-old Domagoj Vida beside him on the right.

Between them, they comprise a strong, occasionally brilliant but somewhat erratic team that the Irish will hope to catch on one of their off days. Modric, of course, is a key figure but there is a good deal more to Bilic’s team than the Spurs midfielder.

Darijo Srna, for instance, will pose a threat going forward and aside from the danger he poses around goal, Mario Mandzukic may prove a handful due to his wider movement too, with the 27-year-old more than happy to drift into the sort of deep positions that, when adopted by opponents, can sometimes lead to uncertainty on the part of Trapattoni’s men.

However, Robbie Keane and Co go into the game apparently convinced of their ability to make a serious impact at this tournament. They arrive in Poznan unbeaten in 14 games, having scored 21 and conceded just three over the course of that run, while they have never lost a competitive away game under the current manager. Statistics like that, they will justifiably claim, are not amassed accidentally.

Their record of beating high quality opposition, however, is far less impressive and at some stage over the next 10 days they are almost certainly going to have to do that if they are to realise Trapattoni’s ambition. Given Spain’s quality, the possibilities seem to boil down to the other two group games but the fear of losing may well mean that, deep down, they see a single point as a decent return tomorrow and get it by displaying the sort of resilience that has got them to Poland in the first place.

Their status as the group’s outsiders means all of Ireland’s group rivals will actually view Trapattoni’s team as the one that has to be beaten. It all seems like a very tall order but if Dunne’s team-mates can really rise to the occasion the way the inspirational defender tends to, they may just yet manage to go at least one better than the Boys of Euro’88 in qualifying for the next stage.

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