Ireland v Croatia preview
14:57, 09 Jun 2012
Ten years is a long time to wait for tournament football. But, when you talk to Irish players around the squad’s base camp Gdynia, you realise they’re struggling to manage another two days.
As Robbie Keane put it on Friday: “We’re desperate to get out there.”
Keith Andrews: “We are itching to go now.”
Glenn Whelan: “We are raring to go.”
In short, Ireland just want to get at Croatia.
But that’s probably just as well.
Because, as Slaven Bilic has made patently clear, his team just want to get at Ireland too. In a recent interview, the Croatia manager spoke about how he plans to alter his team’s usual counter-attacking game in order to make his side more proactive and properly seize what he sees as their best opportunity to win a game.
“Ireland is our big chance, but I’m sure they’re saying the same about us.”
It’s an element that adds a further layer of intrigue to Ireland’s first fixture, in Poznan. As we well know, opening matches tend to be cagey. And that is likely to only be exaggerated by Giovanni Trapattoni’s inherent caution.
In that context, you get the sense that the manager wouldn’t exactly be too unhappy with a draw, as generally tends to be the case in these games. The truism is that it’s enough to just a get a point on the board, to just secure a foothold in the group.
But that’s all it is: a truism. In the history of the 16-team European Championships, 59% of teams that have drawn their first game have gone out in the first round. And, naturally, the extra incentive that stat creates to win against Croatia will only be reinforced by the fact it is – as Bilic said – the most winnable game for both teams?
As such, although Trapattoni’s contained approach is absolutely the correct strategy to take against Spain and Italy, is something more proactive warranted here? Now, more than ever, should the manager loosen the shackles a little?
Well, here’s where it gets tricky.
Because, if Croatia are going to come at Ireland, there might be openings further up the pitch.
Bilic, after all, normally plays a counter-attacking style precisely because his defence is exceptionally slow. If Ireland sit and then suddenly hit that defence on the break, there might be real joy to be had. That could particularly be the case later in game when the match has opened up and – as expected – James McClean’s sheer directness is introduced.
Of course, even that is dependent on Ireland clogging up Croatia’s supply lines.
And this is also where we realise the exactly quality of both the level and Ireland.
The relatively irrelevant Hungary game apart, it is somewhat telling that Trapattoni’s side have struggled and been exposed in the vast majority of their matches against a midfield three: Bulgaria at home in 2009, France at home in the play-offs, Russia at home in October 2010, Russia away in September 2011 and then, finally, Slovakia at home.
This is the real test. Will Trapattoni’s rigid system – which has, of course, already brought the second longest unbeaten run going into Euro 2012 and the second best defensive record – be able to hold firm in the face of flowing possession in front of them in order to illustrate they can genuinely replicate Greece... or will the flaws of that system at this level be fatally exposed?
It’s possibly here, more so than in an attacking sense, that the energy and eagerness the Irish players have illustrated will be most important. If it allows them to cover more ground, to step up more often and more quickly, then the numerical disadvantage in midfield won’t be so pronounced. That optimum performance level, after all, was the key to the landmark performance in Paris.
In that case, a repeat is highly possible. And that was certainly one sense you get off the players. Contained energy within Trappatoni’s constraints can suddenly make it a much more appealing system. This is likely to be what the manager is talking about when he says he’s not a fundamentally defensive system.
But, for all the rarity of this kind of stage, this game is highly likely to conform to the routines of the Trapattoni era: Ireland imposing themselves before receding, the opposition dominating the middle 70 minutes and then, perhaps, a few more openings late on.
If Ireland don’t take what has become quite a regularly early goal then, provided they keep Croatia at bay, it’s the latter stages that provide the best opportunity of a win. Note how, after the likes of Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle and Aiden McGeady have done much of the defensive donkey work and somewhat tired the opposition, it is the subs like McClean, Jon Walters and Shane Long who then look much likelier to do something.
As for Croatia doing something? Well, for all their superior technique, Bilic’s side do have a few issues up front themselves. For one, they’ve lost Ivica Olic, whose relentless pressing was so crucial to the single impressive qualification performance against Turkey in the play-off.
Secondly, for all Nikica Jelavic’s goals, the remaining flatness of his overall play isn’t quite in synch with the rest of the team.
Croatia may well dominate the game territorially – as Bilic intends – but the scoreline may be a different matter.
With all that in mind, a 0-0 or late, minimalist 1-0 for either side isn’t a bad bet.
The one fear for Ireland is that, whereas they are what they are – and that is rigidly consistent – an often underwhelming Croatia at least have the potential to be better. Whether they can turn it on in Poznan, though, is another matter.
Prediction: Ireland 0-0 Croatia
Miguel Delaney is a European football journalist who writes for the Evening Herald, the Irish Examiner, ESPN, the London Independent and ourselves. In 2011, he was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year.
Follow him @migueldelaney
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