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REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Republic of Ireland has historically been a giant killer. They have always managed to punch above their weight, when people least expect them to do so. So even though, the men in green has been placed in a tough group consisting of Spain, Italy and Croatia, don't be surprised if Ireland manages to upset the applecart.
This is only the second time Ireland has qualified for the European Championship. The last time they were here, was in 1988 when Jack Charlton was at the helm. Then they were drawn in a Group of Death, consisting Bobby Robson’s England, Valeriy Lobanovskyy’s USSR and Rinuus Michel’s Netherlands. Ireland gave a wonderful account of themselves and even had a chance to qualify for the next round until the last match, where they lost to Netherlands, who were eventually the winners of the tournament. Charlton's Ireland managed to beat England, in fact they became the first team to defeat the English side on their home soil. They even managed to draw with a strong USSR side, who went on to reach the finals along with the Dutch side.
24 years down the lane, they find themselves once again placed in a tough group consisting of 2006 world cup winners Italy, current world champions Spain and a very solid Croatian side. Giovanni Trapattoni, since taking over from Steve Staunton in 2008 has improved the results by leaps and bounds. Ireland came close qualifying for the World cup 2010 in South Africa, but were controversially knocked out after their much talked about match against France.
In the qualifying stages for Euro 2012, Ireland finished second behind Russia in Group B. They managed to grab the play-off place after they defeated Armenia 2-1 in their last match. Luckily for them, they drew Estonia in the play-off, who were perhaps the weakest team among those remaining. The beat Estonia emphatically and qualified for Euro. This is their 5th qualification in any major tournament since their establishment.
Despite getting so many impressive results under Trapattoni, the Italian has come under considerable amount of criticism from media, experts and fans from within the country. People have slammed him for the so called 'negative' and ultra-defensive tactics he has used to attain this success. But when you look at the Ireland squad and the resources that Trapattoni has at his disposal, these criticism looks all the more amusing.
Il Trap has used the 4-4-2 formation. He played Shane Long or Kevin Doyle along with Robbie Keane at the top. The Ireland skipper usually dropped deep, playing behind Doyle/Long, which almost gave the formation a look of 4-4-1-1. Trapattoni used two hard working midfielder and played them deep, leaving all the creativity on the two wingers, Duff and McGeady. He made sure that there are two blanks of four while defending, and they defended quite deep. While counter-attacking they either launched the ball forward towards the striker or played it wide to the two wingers. It is a no nonsense direct style of play that Trapattoni has adapted, which must be credited for the recent success that Ireland have got.
It is easy to criticise the Italian for his boring or negative tactics, the lack of high-quality talent in the squad leaves him with no choice either. Trapattoni knows, the Ireland midfield with the likes of Andrews, Whelan, Gibson and McClean in it wouldn't scare the opponents. These players don't have the technical ability to out pass and maneuver most of the European teams. There best bet lied on their wingers, McGeady and Duff, who are the most creative players in the team. There defense is pretty consistent, but needs protection from its midfield, which is what Andrews and Whelan provides.
In the play-off match against Estonia, where Ireland won 4-0, saw Keith Andrews play a much attack-minded role in the midfield. The West Brom man probably had his best game in a green shirt. Many experts believe that is the way forward for Ireland, to have one of the midfielder in an advance role, but that too has its limitations, as the opponents in Euro will certainly be stronger than Estonia.
So, Trapattoni knows what he is doing. He has molded the team into a system, which minimizes their weakness and maximizes their opportunity to get a result from a game. It might not be pleasing to the eye, but Ireland cannot afford to play that sort of expansive game. Andrews and Whelan cannot take on the Xavis and Pirlos of this world in the passing game. This is what the fans and critics of Ireland must accept. Stephen Hunt in an interview once said: "For a start, Messi and Ronaldo don’t have Irish passports. We no longer hit is as high as we can, but we do have a direct style of play. We have good effective players at it…it can come across sometimes from the media that we don’t have a fancy style of play, but we never had. Never, ever had. We had Liam Brady, who was talented. Apart from that, you tell me who has been Ronaldo or Messi for the last 20 years in Ireland?"
They have been drawn in group from where very few expects them to qualify. But looking at their past records in big tournament, they can surely give some of the big names a hard time. They have qualified for the world cup only thrice, but having qualified they managed to reach the quarterfinal once and round of 16 twice. In fact the 1994, they beat a much fancied Italian side in their very first. It is not beyond Trapattoni's men to win against Croatia and get a result against a relatively weakened Italian side. Spain would be jump to high though. But while Spain and Italy are favorites to qualify from the group, Ireland won't make it easy for the big boys.
PLAYER TO WATCH: AIDEN McGEADY
Aiden McGeady is perhaps the most exciting talent in the Ireland dressing room at the moment. The 26-year-old winger will provide much of the attacking impetus for the men in green.
The former Celtic man was transferred to Spartak Moscow in 2010 for a fee of £9.5 million, making him the highest transfer export in Scottish premier league.
In Ireland's last warm-up match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, McGeady came of the bench and provided the assist for the winner scored by Shane Long.
Trapattoni will be hoping his crafty winger can provide the spark required to make presence felt in the group stages, and one would think that for the Irish to have any hope of progressing from the group stage, then this player must be at the top of his game, particularly in the first game of the tournament against Croatia.
AMLAN'S PREDICTION: Group Stage - It will take a huge effort and a lot of luck for Ireland to get past Italy and Spain in the group stage, but if there is any man who knows how to cause an upset it is the grand old man of football, Giovanni Trapattoni.