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Euro 2012: It's been a long time coming





'It's been a long time coming." Robbie Keane spoke for the nation at the Stadion Miejski in Poznan last night as he anticipated Ireland's opening game in the European Championships this evening against Croatia.

Ten years after the last appearance in a major tournament, Ireland's long preparation is almost over. "I can say we are ready," Giovanni Trapattoni said, before confirming that the team will line up as expected, with Shay Given fit to start in goal.

Croatia manager Slaven Bilic last night joined the chorus of praise for Trapattoni which has been the soundtrack to his return to the big stage. "What can I say about Trapattoni? He is Mr Calcio. He is still the man."

Twenty thousand Irish fans are expected in the ground this evening for a game which Ireland can't afford to lose.

"It has been a difficult few years," Keane said, talking about Irish football or maybe simply Ireland. "Qualification has changed the nation. The country has been on its knees for a few years, so it is great for us as players to help change that and we want to give the people as much joy as possible over the next month or so."

Bilic insisted there will be no surprises from either side and confirmed that Vedran Corluka will start.

"They play just one way, so I'm not sure if they can surprise us. We know everything about them and they know everything about us. We have to play a huge match. If we play as well as we can we will win. A win will make everything easier," Bilic said.

The Ireland squad travelled from Sopot to Poznan yesterday and as they spotted supporters in the city, the players had the first real sense that they are involved in the tournament.

"The first match is critical," Trapattoni insisted. "If you win the first game, you get enthusiasm."

For Keane, these events have always been special. In 1998, he was part of the Irish side that won the U-18 European Championships, beating Croatia 5-2 along the way, a game in which Keane scored once and set up two against the current Croatian goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa.

"I remember this match well," Pletikosa, who played at Spurs with Keane, recalled last night. "I will do everything not to repeat this tomorrow. Robbie is a great player. He is unpredictable. He can surprise us in every single moment with his reactions."

Keane was intent on delivering an upbeat message. "We're not here to make up the numbers. Our record in recent years has been very good and we are coming into the competition with the belief we can get out of the group."

On the eve of the competition, Richard Dunne confirmed he will not be retiring from international football at the end of the tournament.

It was Trap, the oldest manager to lead a side in the European Championships, who had to repeat that he doesn't think of retirement: "No matter what the age is, those who remain young are the ones who want to attain goals. That is my character, that is what I feel."

Trapattoni's Italian is sometimes as interesting as his English and as he spoke his native language last night, there were long silences as UEFA's official interpreter tried to digest what he had said.

Trap also recalled the words of Gianni Agnelli, his president at Juventus. "The first lesson I learned from Mr Agnelli was if you want to make yourself relevant, never say 'that was my time'."

Before he left for training, Trapattoni was asked would he go to mass today and pray for Ireland. "I do go to church but I don't go to pray for a victory. I go rather to keep away badness like envy, jealousy and spite out of my life."

He then quoted an Italian proverb. "It's the habit that makes the monk, not the monk that makes the habit." It turned out the proverb should be the other way round.

Order is something that Trapattoni saves for the football pitch.

Sunday Indo Sport