Euro 2012: Ireland players and philosophy ruthlessly exposed
ELIMINATION. Humiliation. The rocky road to Poland was a smooth passageway compared to this. And, while the superb Irish support stood to applaud at the final whistle, this experience will have scarred the professional pride of a squad and a strategy that was thoroughly exposed.
There's no shame in losing to Spain, of course. Over the past six years, they have embarrassed far superior sides than Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland.
But this was an extremely brutal exercise that asks searching questions of Trapattoni. Ultimately, the display in Poznan on Sunday left the 73-year-old's team in an unenviable position going into this joust with the best team in the world. That's where the real damage was done.
Still, the response was predictable. There was no coherent Plan B. Indeed, by deploying Robbie Keane as a lone striker, it was arguably far worse than Plan A. Trapattoni attributed the country's heaviest competitive loss in 41 years to 'fear and tension' that bred calamitous mistakes, but that seems too simplistic an excuse for what unfolded.
The sum total is that Ireland are the first team to be knocked out of the competition. Monday's showdown with Italy is nothing more than a day out.
In Italy, the build-up to that game will revolve around Trapattoni, and whether he can produce a result that would end his homeland's interest in the competition. Suspicious minds in Croatia and Spain will wonder if he would be disposed towards doing so. However, that would be to ignore the impact that three defeats could have on his standing in the country where he is now employed.
The outcome had Trapattoni's fingerprints all over it. He had ensured that with a team selection that raised eyebrows. Simon Cox was called into his starting XI in place of Kevin Doyle, ostensibly to function as a fifth midfielder. With Keane isolated, Ireland entered battle without a target man, an outlet for the long balls that were inevitably pumped forward under pressure.
Cox did kick off with a purpose which suggested he could defy physical limitations and provide that strength, winning a free and then collecting a quick take from Keith Andrews to force a stop from Iker Casillas.
It was a misleading moment. Within four minutes, Ireland were behind. Crisp Spanish passing cut through the heart of the Irish engine room, and David Silva collected. Richard Dunne brought the Manchester City man to the deck with a full-blooded challenge, but he was sluggish off his feet, and with Sean St Ledger hesitant, the recalled Fernando Torres nipped in to avoid a wild Dunne swipe, dance past Stephen Ward and fire over Shay Given and into the roof of the net.
"Just like Croatia," lamented Trapattoni. "I want to ask the lads how on earth it's possible, over the course of two games, after a couple of minutes, to gift the other team a goal again."
Vicente del Bosque's decision to recall a striker and drop Cesc Fabregas was vindicated, although with this Spanish side, talk of formations is sometimes redundant.
Ireland played 4-5-1. Spain played with the ball. Alvaro Arbeloa, the designated right-back, spent the majority of the first half in the Irish final third, collecting diagonal balls and flicking them into the danger zone. Torres should have quickly doubled the lead from one such opening.
It was the Spain show. And, while it is hard to stop players with that ability from dominating, Ireland's approach merely exacerbated the situation. Cleary, Trapattoni hoped that Keane's movement would provide an outball. Hence, a few early punts from Dunne towards the corner flag for the skipper to chase.
Alas, as the half progressed, tired Irish legs didn't have time to think about frenetic clearances. Keane didn't have a prayer of winning anything in the air. So, the ball was swiftly returned. Cox did find some reasonable positions, and created half a sniff for the skipper before the interval, yet the LA Galaxy man was quickly closed down.
Instead, the road to half-time was about containment. The early concession didn't alter the game plan, and Ireland continued to flirt with danger.
Spain's tendency to overplay retrieved worrying situations, in addition to some brave defending. All members of the back four made timely interceptions, while Given reacted smartly to block from the marauding Arbeloa. Xabi Alonso threatened from distance. Andres Iniesta might twice have done better when presented with a sight of goal; one such attempt brought a welcome respite.
When Croatia scored in the first five minutes of each half on Sunday, they became the first side to do so at the European Championships. They held that distinction for one game, a stat that perhaps says more about Ireland than the two teams which have achieved it.
Trapattoni had withdrawn Cox for Walters; but his team were incapable of advancing from defensive territory. First, Glenn Whelan lost the ball cheaply. Then, a Dunne hoof trickled tamely along the ground. The Spanish wave advanced, with Arbeloa picking out Iniesta, whose shot was punched unconvincingly away by Given. Silva gathered, danced a jig that left St Ledger spitting grass, and passed the ball into the net. Five-a-side stuff.
And it clearly wasn't going to be the end of the scoring. Xavi reminded everyone what Given is capable of with an exocet that produced a flying stop from the 36-year-old.
But every time an Irish body produced a good block, there was no time to admire it. More often than not, they were called into action within seconds -- particularly so for Given.
He could do little about Spain's third. St Ledger emerged from his station and then lost his footing. Aiden McGeady reacted without conviction, and Torres was slipped through. He finished with the swagger of old. On this night, it was Ireland that looked dated.
Keane subsequently woke Casillas from his slumber with a daisycutter that arose from a scuffed St Ledger pass.
Yet the loudest cheer from the Irish masses inside the 90 minutes came when James McClean was summoned in place of Damien Duff, with the Derry man given a quarter of an hour to make his mark. Trapattoni's next decision, which brought Paul Green in for Glenn Whelan, was greeted less enthusiastically. Poor old Darron Gibson.
Green is supposed to provide attention to the little details, but he was implicated in a tardy response to a swiftly taken Spanish corner. Spanish sub Cesc Fabregas -- a higher class of replacement, it must be said -- was alert and smashed home emphatically. To be fair to Green, he wasn't the only Irishman to be caught out. The spirit was broken.
This was a lesson. Will we learn from it?