AS three Irish supporters performed a drunken, naked dance in the fountains of Poznan’s Stary Rynek in the early hours of Monday following Croatia’s dismantling of Giovanni Trapattoni’s team, their carefree reaction to defeat jarred with the darkening mood back home
With one tabloid’s front-page headline screaming “Direland” in response to the Republic of Ireland’s 3-1 Group C humbling against the Croatians, the gulf between reality and expectation could not have been exposed more starkly.
Prior to Ireland's Euro 2012 opener in Poznan, their first fixture at a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup, a poll commissioned by the Irish broadcaster, RTE, asking “Will Ireland beat Croatia?” prompted 86 per cent of responders to say yes.
“I think all this optimism is a bit, well, optimistic,” claimed Johnny Giles, the former Ireland player and manager, in his role as a match pundit in response to that vote of confidence in Trapattoni’s players.
Giles’s pessimism proved to be prophetic as Slaven Bilic’s team coasted to a victory which left them well placed to progress to the knock-out stages.
Ireland, unbeaten in 14 games prior to Sunday’s match, appeared limited, lacking in invention and pace and without any kind of Plan B.
But the truth is that the Croatia game told us nothing new about Trapattoni’s Ireland. They have always been a team who have stretched themselves beyond their means, but Poznan was where their luck ran out.
Trapattoni’s substitutions did not work and the biggest criticism of the Italian coach, from fans and media alike, was his decision to deploy a centre-forward, Simon Cox, on the wing in the second half rather than the pacy, prodigious talent of Sunderland’s James McClean.
“It’s important, when we give him the opportunity, he is not under pressure.” Trapattoni said. “I don’t want him to have a heavy weight on his shoulders.”
Ireland were utterly predictable, however, and Trapattoni, whose dour tactics have been accepted as the price to pay for Euro 2012 qualification, is now shouldering much of the criticism.
“It was like watching Jack Charlton’s Ireland all over again, just without the calibre of player,” claimed Brian Kerr, who succeeded Mick McCarthy as manager in 2003.
“It’s a shame that Trapattoni sees this way of playing as our only outlet. The old concern about ball retention was evident from midway through the first half.” He added that the game against Spain on Thursday “could be gruesome viewing”.
Trapattoni is unlikely to alter his approach against the world and European champions in Gdansk, however.
He will persevere with goalkeeper Shay Given, despite concerns over his fitness following his poor performance against Croatia, and the old stagers of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff are unlikely to be dropped. Kevin Doyle could make way for Shane Long alongside Keane, however.
“Spain is another game and we have to think very, very much about how we play,” Trapattoni said. “I know you want to know what happens, but we have to think about how the players are with fitness. If I decide to change, it will not be because a player played badly or does not deserve to play.”
Options are limited, however. Given, Keane and Duff could all end their international careers this summer, but while Keiren Westwood, Shane Long and McClean, respectively, are in place for the future, none are yet ready to usurp the legends standing in their way.
But Trapattoni, having signed a new contract earlier this year which takes him through to the 2014 World Cup, is unlikely to fall on his sword should Euro 2012 continue as it has started, with further defeats.
The salvage job now centres on the clash with Spain, who eliminated the Irish from the 2002 World Cup in a second-round penalty shoot-out.
Reality suggests that Ireland have next to no chance, with Spain’s passing game seemingly tailor-made to pick holes in the Irish rearguard.
But defender Richard Dunne, whose blistered feet prevented him from training on Monday, insists that belief remains strong that Ireland can pull off a shock against Vicente del Bosque’s team and then repeat the feat against Italy next Monday.
He said: “We understand we’ll be written off and not given a chance, but we’ve got 180 minutes of football left to play in the tournament, so why not?
“We’ve done it before. We can go and win the games. People have come over here and spent all their money to watch us, so we’ve got to make sure, when we get there on Thursday, our heads will be right and we’ll go there to win the game.”