The drunken blur we don't want to revisit
11:30, 12 Jun 2012
It will be agonising, painful and possibly ugly — and that's just for the neutrals.
For Ireland fans who will watch our two-man midfield chase the ever-diminishing sight of the six or so Spaniards buttocks haring around the same area, it may be torture most foul.
The problem for Ireland is that if Spain score, which they almost certainly will, we may need two depending on results. Now if scoring one seems a daunting task against a side so superior, then pushing for a second looks remote.
Tells us something you don't know perhaps, but the disparity on Sunday was put into context by Spain successfully completing more passes against Italy than Ireland and Croatia (a fine ball-playing side) combined.
Ireland won't have the ball and without that, we'll be relying on one-tenth of the law. Which has actually consistently delivered for us in getting to Poland. When your two main tactics continue to be effort and luck, a drop-off in either will be and has been devastating.
As for the Croatia game itself, it remains to this writer something of a drunken blur; in the same way that most of those in Poznan will remember it. There is that hazy sense that we were defiled by a Dutch official but that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time too. We haven’t watched it back yet because we’re not quite ready for that feeling again — you know, the one where showering feels appropriate.
Ireland have relied on set-pieces for goals and it's hard to imagine us getting too many given how little of the ball we will have in the Spanish half. This game could be like a real-life sporting version of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ: you feel yourself burdened by what you're seeing but can't look away. Or like reading tetraplegic Matt Hampson's autobiography Engage, reading on despite the crawling torture of it all. The knowledge that there isn't a happy ending. While at the same time knowing that little differences could have spun out a different story.
Hampson might be playing for England and, with some tweaks, Robbie Keane could be playing for Ireland. Yes, our captain was on the pitch but he, as much as many other players, suffered again from Giovanni Trapattoni’s self-asphyxiating system. And let’s not hear this rubbish about Keane not being able to drop deep or that he is simply a finisher. Just cast your minds back to earlier this very year when, at Aston Villa, he played some of his most sensational stuff since the Dimitar Berbatov marriage at Spurs.
When there were players for him to link with, he made the attacking chain both strong and fluid. If Keane could do it four months ago, he hasn’t suddenly lost some unquantifiable “it”. It’s the case with any clever attacker, starve him of support and he’ll look isolated, or ordinary.
Speaking of which, there is talk that Fernando Torres could start on Thursday night and, though there has been endless mocking of the man in the past couple of years, we would argue that it is better he does not start. Not only because he still has the ability to rattle a few past Shay Given, but because a Spain team with all of the ball may again be without a focal point. That strikerless tactic gave Italy breathing room at the back and it can too for Ireland if Torres is not at number nine. We'll of course be outrun in midfield but the threat in behind, in theory at least, should be lessened.
Meanwhile, back in reality… Ireland rarely deliver when victory is a must. That one night in Paris is a recent exception (winning in 90 minutes) and will no doubt be used as motivation by Trapattoni.
Traditionally, we don't get it done and, ultimately we didn't with France on the rack in that play-off. Look back at those three play-off defeats for Euro ’96 against Holland, World Cup ’98 against Belgium and Euro 2000 against Turkey. Having qualified for World Cup 2002 by beating Iran (the Estonia of that year's play-offs), Ireland have not been in a major finals in an era where Spain have come to dominate them.
Results had previously converted many to the pro-Trapattoni camp but there have been warning signs all along. A massive feature is how handily teams have figured us out. During the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, Ireland regularly seized the initiative in games and the opening 20 minutes were usually ours.
We put them under pressure whereas now we rarely have concerted spells in the opposition half, poor sides have lorded the ball over us, while our switching of play is painfully predictable. Spain’s ball-playing can be a grind too but that’s acceptable when you own the ball. When you’re directing.
We still have to sit through the end credits but Ireland’s story feels like it's already in the can. We could perhaps imagine an underdog such as Darron Gibson thundering one home for a Hollywood finish. What's more likely is a soul-burdening tale more suited to his namesake Mel.
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