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Alonso pleads for patience to break down 'combative' Irish

As someone switches off the lights in the press conference room, perhaps this was a precursor to a cunning Irish game plan. Plug out the floodlights? What better way to mug the world and European champions!

Spain, however, are forearmed and forewarned. And you also suspect they could still perform their renowned tiki-taka in the dark. Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso, when restored to the full glare of the lights, will expect high balls, strong set-pieces and more high balls. And even a 4-5-1.

"We know one of the strikers will drop deep to make it tougher and more compact," says the former Liverpool and current Real Madrid midfielder Alonso.

"If Keane plays up front with Walters or Doyle, we are analysing that. Our style is not changing but we have to be aware of their qualities, set-pieces and ability to counter-attack. They are a very combative team and we saw how they kept fighting until the last minute against Croatia."

Fabregas, like Ireland's Kevin Doyle, may be sacrificed despite a decent display against Italy, in his case a goalscoring one, as Spain may decide to deploy an orthodox striker, probably Fernando Llorente Torres, as opposed to Fernando Torres.

Fabregas doesn't seem too enamoured with his status as a phantom centre-forward, an indifference that may influence Vicente del Bosque's final decision.

Yet, as he remarks that the Spanish system is more open and freer than Barcelona's, an indication of the stiffest of tasks being presented to Ireland is amply illustrated.

Alonso indicates that patience will be key.

"If they play with two banks of four, it will be tough to find spaces in between the lines. We need to be patient. Sometimes we need long-distance shots and we are working on those things. Scoring an early goal would be good. Even though there is pressure on us, we are very calm inside. If we concentrate and give everything, we have a chance to win. We need to live with this pressure."

Alonso spent time as a 13-year-old schoolkid in Kells, Co Meath, "for not enough time to learn Irish, as I was trying to learn English. I liked the culture and I still have many friends there."

Friendships across borders that will be sorely stretched tonight. Alonso and co will aim to darken Ireland's dreams with characteristic precision.

Irish Independent