Grit and graft no match for grace


REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 0 SPAIN 4THEY REALLY should ban Spanish bullfighting. Nobody needed a blindfold but there were times last night when it was sad to watch what Spain did to the Republic of Ireland as the rain fell and the Irish sang on in Gdansk.

The 4-0 scoreline was a true reflection of what happens when a profoundly brilliant team meets a limited one. This was far from the greatest Irish team to ever play in a major championships but it should be remembered, on a chastening night, that they owe the country nothing.

They earned their place in Poland on graft and courage and on a sodden night, that was nothing like enough. Never did the old schoolyard phrase seem truer: they ran rings around us. Any hope that it would be otherwise proved delusional.

“The boys’ disappointment, my own disappointment . . . it is not actually a disappointment,” Trapattoni would say later of the worst Irish defeat since 1971. “Because I have always had faith in our quality – not so much our creativity but our application and what we put in on the pitch. This has always got us good results. I will ask the lads how it is possible that over two games in just three minutes we have gifted them goals.

“So something has changed between the qualifying campaign and the tournament. Something has changed – fear or tension has meant we made mistakes that we didn’t make at all. We can see here the weight on the players’ shoulders. I am very sad for the fans. They cheered us through the most difficult part of the game and I am really thankful for that.”

If there was a general sigh of relief among the Irish in the stadium when the clock passed the three-minute mark at which stage Croatia had registered their first goal on Monday night, then it didn’t last long. Here in Gdansk, just four minutes of ballooning optimism ticked by before Shay Given had to retrieve the ball from his net.

Again, there was an element of cruelty to the goal: Richard Dunne had just made one of his perfectly-timed blocks on David Silva but even as he rose to his feet, Fernando Torres pick-pocketed the ball from Dunne and, after teeing it up, unleashed a screaming shot past Given which seemed powered by the fury of a humiliating season at Chelsea.

In the warm-up, El Nino had a glimmer in his eye signalling the fact that he saw this match as an opportunity to remind the world of his worth. And that set the tone.

Just like that, Ireland were slipping slowly and inevitably out of the championships. Goals by Silva, Torres again and a grace note from Cesc Fabregas followed and the Spanish goal count would have been higher but for two exceptional saves by Given.

“Like an orchestra,” was Trapattoni’s summary.

The Spanish didn’t so much kick the football around the field as embroider gorgeous stitch work through the green blanket which Trapattoni had set up. They had all the time in the world, even if it must have been a new experience for them to have their freestyle jazz met with a low chorus of Irish booing and defiant outbreaks of The Fields of Athenry.

At times, it was excruciating to watch through Irish eyes, a bit like having prime seats at the bullring, with Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez leading the picadores and banderillas with a relentless flourish of deft flicks and touches that were at once mesmerising, stinging and . . . quietly fatal.

Entire minutes passed when the Irish men, although they chased honestly and ran sensible angles to close the Spaniards down, could not get near the ball.

Maybe the world champions seemed a little bit in love with themselves.

There was one instance, when Damien Duff tried a chip to nothing on a rare Ireland break into olive grove country and the ball floated harmlessly to Iker Casillas. The goalkeeper stood and all but started whistling as he waited for its arrival and then restarted play with a throw out to Alvaro Arbeloa which was so casual that it seemed borderline contemptuous.

But then, there were periods when Casillas had such little involvement in the game that he could easily have made a call home to the folks in Spain.

Ireland were so busy just trying to avoid falling under the hypnotic spell of the Spanish ingeniously simple pass-and-go mastery that it seemed unfair to expect them to go and create a goal of their own.

As it turned out, Ireland concocted just one truly threatening attack, a Robbie Keane snap shot which Casillas deflected.

The brightest of Ireland’s yesterdays and tomorrows met in the 75th minute when Trapattoni made his second change of the night: Duff high-fived James McClean when he departed the field. “Even if it wasn’t the best time to bring him on but it will help him to understand what international football is about,” said the manager.

So disappointingly, Trapattoni will face the Azzurri with nothing meaningful to play for. But the valedictory already started in this game.

Time to go back to the field now. It is 88 minutes in and at 4-0 down, the stadium in Gdansk is filled with a slow rendition of The Fields of Athenry. The Spanish fans clapped in rhythm.

“I thought with that the Irish fans and players showed us what the game is really about,” said Vincente del Bosque as midnight beckoned. A nice thought but no, Spain had shown us that. The Fields was a salute – and a recognition that the matador must win.

TURNING POINT: Gone in just three minutes

IT CAME after a mere three minutes. Andrés Iniesta slid a brilliant defence splitting ball to David Silva on the edge of Ireland’s area, where Richard Dunne made a typically brave interception only to be robbed by the rapier-sharp Fernando Torres before he could regain his feet. The Chelsea striker ghosted past Stephen Ward and blasted over Shay Given into the roof of the net to make it one-nil.

The point of despair came around 23 minutes when it became apparent that there wouldn’t be a genuine response from Ireland. The defence strung a hardly mesmerising five passes together before Sean St Ledger, under a hint of pressure, rolled the ball into touch for a Spanish throw-in.

The point of no return came on 48 minutes when a poor punched clearance from Shay Given went straight to Silva who, faced with three green jerseys and Given, all standing one behind the other, calmly rolled it past them all to make it 2-0.

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