Euro 2012 Preview: Ireland
***Written by Ronan Murphy of Greenscene.me. GreenScene is devoted to covering Irish footballers both internationally and nationally, with a particular focus on Irishmen currently playing in the top four tiers of the English football system.***
Having narrowly missed out on qualification for a number of major tournaments since 2002, the Republic of Ireland finally broke their playoff curse to reach their first European Championships in 24 years. Ireland are a very experienced side internationally, with one of the oldest squads in the competition. Shay Given and Robbie Keane both have over 100 caps, and Damien Duff should reach that milestone during the group stage.
Aston Villa’s Richard Dunne and John O’Shea of Sunderland are the long-term members of the backline, with Dunne having travelled to Japan and South Korea ten years ago. Exciting Sunderland winger James McClean is part of the new blood alongside Darron Gibson and Shane Long, who could be mainstays in the Ireland squad for years to come.
How Did They Qualify?
After THAT playoff loss to France in Paris for World Cup 2010, Ireland received a much better draw this time around, being matched against Estonia over two legs. A 4-o win in Tallinn paved the way for the Boys in Green to return to a major competition.
Ireland finished runners-up in Group B behind an impressive Russia side, and kept clean sheets in four of five away games. A 3-2 loss in Dublin to the Russians was the one black mark on the campaign, with an away win against Armenia and draws with Slovakia home and away proving crucial. At times, the rigid 4-4-2 was overrun in midfield, most notably in the two games against Russia, but a fantastic team spirit and dogged defending from Dunne saw Ireland come away with a vital point in Moscow and a trip to the playoffs.
Giovanni Trapattoni is the only manager to win every single international club competition, and since the Cup Winners’ Cup has been defunct since 1999, he will probably be the only manager ever to achieve that feat. A two-time European Cup winner as a player, the man the Italians affectionately call ‘Trap’ was even more successful as a manager, winning six Serie A titles with Juventus as well as league titles with Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Benfica, and Red Bull Salzburg.
Trapattoni has previous history as an international manager, leading Italy at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004. The 73-year-old points to biased refereeing in the knockout game against hosts South Korea, but the Italians exited Euro 2004 at the group stage on goals scored – perhaps indicative of the defensive attitude long attributed to Trap.
Even when he was guiding Juventus to their 14 trophies in the 70s and 80s, Trapattoni was criticised for being too defensive-minded, and that is also used as a negative barb against his Ireland team. However, an unbeaten 2010 qualifying campaign and qualification for this summer’s European Championship vindicates the Italian’s approach.
It’s hard to look past Robbie Keane when choosing Ireland’s star man. The nation’s record international goalscorer, sitting 28th on the all-time international list with 53 goals in 114 games. In fact, Keane’s recent form has shown he’s now even more critical in front of the net than ever before, hitting eight goals in 10 internationals in 2011 – his highest tally yet. The LA Galaxy forward also had an impressive loan spell at Aston Villa, showing he can still cut it in the Premier League, netting three times in six games.
Trapattoni’s 4-4-2 is heavily dependent on Keane, but will also look to the wingers to create opportunities. Damien Duff is another remnant of the 2002 World Cup, but his ability to hold up the ball and bring other players into play will be greatly needed. On the other side, Aiden McGeady was Ireland’s most creative player in qualifying, and the Spartak Moscow wideman ended the Russian Premier League season on form, guiding his side back to the Champions League.
Ireland’s central midfield pairing of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews are often criticised by fans and pundits, but they work on the instruction of their manager and are used in more of a defensive role than as creative players. West Bromwich Albion midfielder Andrews is a player who always raises his game for the big occasion, and was immense during the Paris playoff. He also opened the scoring this time around in Tallinn with a perfectly timed header.
O’Shea St. Ledger Dunne Ward
Duff Whelan Andrews McGeady
How Far Can They Go?
Despite a difficult group containing the past two World Champions, many Irish fans are optimistic that their side can frustrate Spain and get something from the game. Trapattoni has proved a thorn in the side of Italy in recent years, with one win and two draws in the three meetings between Ireland and his former side. Ireland face Croatia in the opening Group C game, and must get off to a good start to stand any chance of progress. With Group C meeting Group D in the quarter finals, Ireland could set up tasty ties with either England or France – games sure to excite the entire nation.