Giddy in Gdansk as manager and striker adopt playful mood

 

THE ITALIAN gave a flicker of a smile when it was put to him if he remembered being in Gdansk several football lives ago.

Giovanni Trapattoni speaks and thinks in torrents but always, always the old football games return to him with instant and crystal clarity. Of course he remembered: it was the early autumn of 1983 and he took his Juventus team to the turbulent shipyard city to play a Lechia team enjoying the rewards for a starry cup run in Poland. Lechia was Lech Walesa’s team, the Solidarity team and to have the gods of Italian football visiting the northern town was an achievement in itself.

“I remember it but as a coach I have been to Poland many times,” Trapattoni said in a digression which once again illuminated the peerless experience of the Irish coach. “We had a player like (Zbigniew) Boniek and he was a symbolic figure and a great player for Juve. I saw this country many years ago and saw the people struggle after the war. Now I see a country in growth, a fantastic country and great people. They have a great lifestyle now and that makes me every happy indeed.”

Poland may have been transformed in the intervening decade but there will always be something of the timeless fox about Trapattoni and the Italian was in wonderful form in front of a packed gallery at the Arena Gdansk yesterday evening.

Ireland were due to have a tea-time training session and afterwards, he intended announcing his team. Whether tonight’s match against Spain transpires to be the crushing experience that most of the football world is predicting or whether Trapattoni is on the cusp of the most remarkable result of his international coaching career remains to be seen. But on the eve of the match, he could not have been more sanguine about what Ireland need to do against Vincent del Bosque’s reigning European and World Champions.

And as he held court in Italian and English, it became apparent rather than being apprehensive about the magnitude of the task, he was enjoying the prospect. And so he was in playful mood, declining to name his team but hinting there would be one and possibly more changes. A straight swap with Jonathan Walters coming in for Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane operating as a lone striker was the perceived wisdom.

Both Keane and the manager were in giddy mood as they responded to the subject which seems to have preoccupied the Spanish: the speed of the grass and whether the pitch in Gdansk would be watered. “I already read the forecast and it say tomorrow raining,” Trapattoni said with mock solemnity. “Yes, it’s true. Maybe make a mistake. Also in Ireland and in England also we have rain so the players are used to it. Ah, but Robbie is in Los Vegas,” he remembered, turning to his captain.

“Wish it was Vegas,” Keane murmured with a grin.

“But also for us it is good if it is raining,” concluded Trapattoni. And if it is not then we can ask for the water.”

Keane grinned and the gallery laughed and Trapattoni smiled his amused smile. It was as if the starkness of the challenge ahead has made the Irish relax. But there was such a definite element of mischievousness about the pair that provoked speculation that maybe Trapattoni, the ultimate conservative, was about to spring a surprise on Del Bosque. Maybe there would be more than one change: maybe even Keane himself would be held in reserve.

The captain gave his best wiseguy smile when asked if he was happy with his form. “You try and play as well as you can for the team. Hopefully I will get a couple of opportunities and take them.”

But whatever about Ireland playing with one striker, Trapattoni had a definite opinion about how Spain would approach the game. “I think Del Bosque will play with Llorente or Torres. We all said it was the first 90 minutes in first game, I think he knew how to approach game against Italy. It was a very technical game. Del Bosque was hoping to rely on quality players like Busquets, Iniesta, Alonso and Fabregas. But he could see Torres was missing: that he missed a figure up front. I think he will start a striker.”

As for what the Italian will do, wait and see.