Trap sticks to tired but trusted formula
THE end of an era, but the continuation of a regime.
There's a strange vibe around the final act of Ireland's Euro 2012 adventure. Giovanni Trapattoni arrived into the preliminaries flanked by Robbie Keane and captain for the evening, Damien Duff, with the senior players speaking in a reflective manner that suggested an imminent change in key dressing-room personnel.
Before minds could turn to the future, Trapattoni delivered a sharp reminder that he lives in the present, by naming a first choice XI for the dead rubber -- at least from Ireland's point of view -- with Italy in the Stadion Miejski.
In the aftermath of the thrashing at the hands of Spain, we wondered if the 73-year-old would use our final game of the Euros to draft in some fresh faces who have spent the last month training and spectating.
Instead, his response is to recall Kevin Doyle for Simon Cox, revert to his traditional 4-4-2, and draw strength from what worked in the past rather than empowering the young players who will be crucial to the next stage of his journey; particularly if his growing band of centurions make Poznan the final stop of their international careers.
An Irish team playing a meaningless game in a major tournament may be unprecedented but, clearly, this will be a game like so many others from the past four years.
Trapattoni is undoubtedly a little bit paranoid about the perception that he would give his native country a soft ride. A win puts Italy through, unless Spain and Croatia somehow manage to play out a 2-2 draw in Gdansk.
In 2004, the Italians were eliminated by a remarkably convenient tie between Sweden and Denmark that knocked the Azzurri out on goal difference, and Trapattoni was the manager. It still hurts.
But he was conscious that putting out a weakened side would make it appear to the other teams in the group that he was doing a favour to his friend Cesare Prandelli.
"We all have a duty to do the best we can," said Trapattoni, yesterday, although he added that he was thinking in those terms for both the supporters and his established players.
"I will play the same team that brought us to qualification out of respect for them... and we have to play for the honour of the nation, which the supporters have shown us all the way. They applauded us when we were 3-0 down against Spain."
It could also be the case, of course, that Trapattoni has prior experience of his chosen formula working against the Azzurri.
Three meetings with the Italians have resulted in a win and two draws, despite the limitations of his system. Perhaps he feels it can get by against a team that he knows very well.
He certainly doesn't want to be humbled in an encounter that will undoubtedly command much attention in his homeland.
The supporters who have paid fortunes to come to this part of the world would, of course, like to finish on a high. But they would also like to go to Brazil in two years' time, and Trapattoni's primary responsibility is to deliver an outcome that is satisfactory to Irish interests rather than those of Spain and Croatia.
This isn't an U-10 football match. He doesn't have an obligation to give a run-out to everybody. Yet Keiren Westwood, Darron Gibson, James McClean and Shane Long would benefit from this exercise, especially with question marks hanging over the futures of Shay Given, Duff, and Keane. Maybe Trapattoni is keen for his preferred team to produce a performance that might convince the experienced heads to postpone retirement plans. He certainly doesn't want them to step aside, given his obvious concerns about the ability of what follows behind.
Still, with McGeady struggling for form, and Keane off the pace in the last month, there's a strong case for arguing that McClean and Long are simply better options at this moment in time.
Stephen Kelly will feel hard done by -- he could replace either full-back given how they've struggled in the opening two games. Admittedly, some of the other fringe members of the Irish squad are really only there for emergencies. Some promising players that are watching from afar could have provided alternatives in the rearguard. Trapattoni insists that Serbia in August will be the time for experimentation, but we've heard that promise before. Considering that fixture takes place three days before the start of a new Premier League campaign, he may have limited time and options to live up to those words.
Prandelli was in cheerful form. He has spent the last couple of days handling queries about conspiracies, so he brushed those off. Similarly, he dodged questions which hinted at complacency about the task which Ireland present. Prandelli is surprised that Ireland are out of the running. "Honestly, I am," he said. "They conceded a goal after a few minutes against Croatia, and they couldn't change how the game went."
Some Italian media are calling for Prandelli to go for the jugular considering how Ireland have been exposed defensively. Indeed, if Ireland lose by three or more, they'll go down as the worst team in European Championships history. Yugoslavia (1984) Denmark (2000) and Bulgaria (2004) all finished with a goal difference of -8, with the Danes suffering particular ignominy by failing to score. At least Sean St Ledger scored against Croatia, though, as Roy Keane cruelly pointed out, it's hardly going to feature in a montage of great moments in Irish sporting history.
Mario Balotelli did take part in training last night, but Prandelli is understood to be leaning towards the fitter Antonio Di Natale. You sense that the Irish would prefer to encounter Balotelli but, really, it matters little at this point. More than one have privately wished this game was over already. Once their quarter-final fate was sealed, thoughts turned to home. The majority of those numbered 12-23 will be especially keen to escape. One wonders what they would make of these comments from Prandelli, who learned his trade under Trapattoni at Juventus. "I was 20 years old," he reflected. "From a human perspective, he respected everyone. He thought that those of us who didn't play very much were still very important elements of the squad."
The back-up boys are entitled to feel pretty insignificant right now. A worrying state of affairs when they may soon become more important than Trapattoni might have envisaged.
Verdict: Ireland 1 Italy 2