Big hitters pose huge challenge
A great draw for the fans, but a headache for Giovanni Trapattoni. That's the reality of Ireland's situation after an evening in Kiev that reduced Ireland's prospects of a return to Ukraine next summer.
Three games in Poland in two locations that are relatively close together will be music to the ears of supporters planning an adventure.
The reward for qualification from Group C is a trip to Ukraine. With Spain, Italy, and Croatia in opposition, Trapattoni faces a remarkably difficult challenge to make it back to this part of the world.
The 72-year-old was in his element in the Ukrainian capital yesterday. Rather than steering Ireland through the muddy waters of qualification against unfamiliar opposition, he was rubbing shoulders with fellow greats and esteemed figures from the world game.
As the official UEFA ceremonies placed all four managers from the group on a podium together, Trapattoni spoke in both Italian and English, and took his time to deliver a lengthy speech while Cesare Prandelli, Vicente del Bosque and Slaven Bilic listened attentively.
It's fitting because in the space of eight days next June, Trapattoni will have to try and stop their teams from expressing themselves.
"I think this group is very, very strong," he admitted. "We start with Croatia, after that Spain, then Italy.
"But we cannot think about the names of these famous teams. We have to think about our attitude, and mentality and our performance. Only with this thinking can we go on. Every game is 90 minutes and a lot is possible in football during 90 minutes."
Away from the microphones and cameras, Trapattoni will surely be worried about the task at hand. After a campaign in which Ireland enjoyed some fortune along the way, none moreso than encountering Estonia at the play-off stage, his luck ran out here.
WHY IS IT SUCH A DIFFICULT DRAW?
Ireland will have to go to war with three teams that are currently ranked in the world's top 10. Spain are first, Croatia are eighth and Italy are ninth.
That statistic says something because it emphasises just how unfortunate it was to draw Croatia from the third pot, when they are ranked higher than the Italians.
Okay, the rankings are not without their flaws -- England are fifth -- and everyone except Trapattoni seemed to be relishing a possible meeting with Fabio Capello's boys. But there is a clear split between the four groups. Group B also has three teams from the world's top 10, while the best team in Group A, Russia, is ranked 12th. Group D is also uninspiring.
WHAT ABOUT THE STYLE OF PLAY?
You sense that Trap wouldn't have minded encountering a Dutch side that is a little more direct than its predecessors.
However, Spain are a possession side, with the majestic abilities of Xavi and Iniesta to name just two. The Italians are less flamboyant, but were stingy in qualifying in a defensive sense. Then, you look to the third seeds for some joy, and you find a Croatian side that owned the ball in Dublin and possess one of the Premier League's top players in Luka Modric.
DOES THE ORDER OF GAMES MATTER?
Absolutely. Playing Spain second places extra pressure around the opening game with Croats. If you enter the showdown with Del Bosque's side in a weak position, then it could be all over before the clash with the Italians.
So, while Trapattoni stressed that it's important not to lose against Bilic's charges, the reality is that Ireland could need a victory in the opener to take off the pressure heading into the Spanish match. It's difficult to talk about the Italian game now because the permutations will shape it.
ARE THE SPANISH UNSTOPPABLE?
Not quite. They have shown some vulnerability over the last 12 months, although a record of one loss in 41 competitive starts since a shock loss to Northern Ireland in 2006 is more important than getting bogged down in the outcome of recent friendlies.
Still, Ireland can take some heart from that sole reverse, a group stage loss to Switzerland in the World Cup in South Africa. In that game, the Swiss soaked up pressure, struck clinically, and frustrated the Spanish. They are incredible, but they are not invincible.
WHAT IS CROATIA'S WEAKNESS?
Like Ireland, they required a play-off to make the finals, ultimately falling short at the business end of the group stages. They fluffed their lines in the the big showdown with Greece on the penultimate day, losing 2-0 in Piraeus.
Bilic's side also missed out on the 2010 World Cup completely -- not even making a play-off -- although an injury to Modric was a factor. Still, a devastating first-leg play-off performance in Turkey demonstrated their determination to get back to the top table. Injuries to key players could weaken them.
Well, the Trapattoni factor is a huge issue with Ireland believing they can trouble the Azzurri, but the Italians scored 20 times and conceded just twice in their 10 group games.
It helps that the Irish boss knows their players inside out, to the extent that a reserve Ireland side could out-think a strong Italian outfit in Liege last June. Prandelli is also worried about key attackers Giuseppe Rossi and Antonio Cassano with a view to next summer. Both are long-term absentees.
WILL TRAVEL POSE A PROBLEM?
No, and this is a boost. Ireland will either be based outside Wroclaw or in Gdynia, which is a suburb of Gdansk -- where the Spanish game takes place -- and that would be ideal.
Alas, Sweden have first preference on that venue. Now that the Swedes are in a group based in Ukraine, they are contemplating a move to that country. In that case, Ireland would move in there. However, considering that England face awkward journeys from Poland to Ukraine before each game, Trapattoni can have no complaints in that regard even if Wroclaw is where he ends up.
SO, WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF PROGRESSION?
It's hard to construct a seriously plausible argument as to why Ireland should qualify for the knockout stages. Of course, the old Irish stereotype is that we are better as underdogs, and this group will test that school of thought.
The first game is key. If Ireland lose against Croatia, they're in a bad position for the battle with Spain. Yet if they can somehow find a way to beat Modric and Co, they would be in a good place.
Trapattoni has always pointed out that the key to succeeding against the elite nations is the avoidance of injuries.
He will need a lot more than that to go right if Ireland are to progress.