Trap is not for turning


SOCCER:IN WHAT might be regarded as the football equivalent of that old Margaret Thatcher line about “the lady’s not for turning”, Giovanni Trapattoni last night revealed that he will revert to the Ireland team that started against Croatia for this evening’s encounter with Italy.

By sticking so firmly to his guns after two desperately disappointing performances that have left Ireland with nothing but pride to play for in Poznan, the Italian has left little doubt about how little time he has for either his critics or, it seems, the squad’s second string.

He repeatedly remarked yesterday that his selection had been primarily influenced by “respect for the players who have achieved this qualification”.

His situation is undoubtedly complicated to some extent by the importance of the game to Italy, who need not only to win but for the group’s other game not to end in a high-scoring draw, just as they did eight years ago in Portugal when Trapattoni was in charge.

On that occasion, the Italians won 5-0 but exited because Sweden and Denmark drew 2-2. The same would happen this time if both scorelines were repeated, although it gets more interesting if the match between Spain and Croatia finishes with the sides tied on a goal apiece. In that instance, all three teams would be inseparable in terms of their games against each other and a 3-0 win would get Italy through ahead of Croatia on goal difference in the wider group, while 3-1 would mean qualifying at the expense of the Croats on the highly unsatisfactory basis of the Uefa co-efficient ranking table.

Somewhat inevitably, the Italians are preoccupied with the idea of being victims of a biscotto.

Having applauded the arrival of a manager who has become a lot more popular at home since he actually stopped managing the national team there and moved abroad, the country’s media asked one question after another at last night’s pre-match about the prospect of the night’s other game ending in a result that might render a win over Ireland meaningless.

The Ireland manager said such a scenario was “unlikely”, but did not rule it out entirely and said the authorities have to vigilant. In the circumstances, he has made clear, however, he does not want to be seen to be helping the Italians achieve their end of the qualification equation by fielding a “weakened” team, although it seemed to be pretty much taken for granted among his country’s media that Italy can win regardless of what side the 73-year-old puts out.

Trapattoni did little to try to change the tone of the exchange, observing only that while the game “is no longer decisive for us, it is about our honour and the honour of our nation”.

Taking Italy out of the competition by earning at least a point against them would indeed mitigate the embarrassment of conceding seven goals in the team’s two games so far.

However, another hefty defeat would further dent morale and, perhaps, more seriously undermine Trapattoni’s authority.

Clearly, though, there is a case to be made at this stage for shaking things up a little, as well as giving some younger players a chance to experience a game like tonight’s. Trapattoni’s decision to name his first choice starting 11 from the qualifiers reinforces the impression, however, that he believes he has no meaningful room for manoeuvre.

The suggestion that Italy have been preparing for the game by using four defenders in training may have played some tiny part in Trapattoni’s thinking, although probably not. In any case, Cesare Prandelli has said he will not change his 3-5-2 system, in which case Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews look like being in for another rough night in midfield.

“Me and Keith have taken a hammering from all over,” said Whelan on Saturday, “but I don’t think we have played against a 4-4-2 since I’ve been in the team so that hasn’t been easy.”

He went on to make it clear that he would continue to do what he is told, however, and reports of unrest in the camp would appear to be greatly exaggerated.

Prandelli has also said he will not chase the big win that would be required in the event of a 1-1 draw in Gdansk, but then the way Ireland are playing just now, it might not necessarily require the game’s hottest ever pursuit.

There is no mistaking the fact, though, that both Italy’s manager and his players are under a lot of pressure going into this game as the prospect of returning home from a successive major championship at the end of the group stage is not at all an attractive one.

There is likely to be rather more urgency about their play here than there was in Liege, and Ireland will have to show dramatic improvement if it is not all to end badly for them again.

Much has also been made of Ireland’s draws against the then world champions in Bari and Croke Park during Trapattoni’s first campaign in charge. Although in the former game the Italians played with 10 men for almost the entire 90 minutes, while they didn’t need to win the latter and equalised with almost casual ease late on when their hosts threatened to snatch victory.

Both were still good results, though, and taking a point here would, even setting aside the prize money involved, be an awful lot better than returning home completely empty-handed.

Asked late on in his press conference about Roy Keane’s damning criticism of the team’s displays so far and his slightly risible call for 11 changes to be made this evening, Trapattoni eventually became exasperated and said in Italian: “For f**k’s sake, what has he ever won as a manager?” The Italian needs to remember, though, that he too is constantly being judged in the here and now; trading on past glories, even rather more recent ones than Roy’s, can be a very dangerous game.

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