Euro 2012: Outclassed Ireland fall through the trap door
TURNS out you can beat the Irish. Giovanni Trapattoni's men made it painfully easy on a dispiriting night in Poznan.
The Italian spent the build-up talking about his pride in the record of conceding a mere three goals in the 14 games preceding this acid test. Yet, he always made sure to touch wood, fearing that it was tempting fate.
And so it proved. But this was about more than superstition. Croatia collected the three points here for two main reasons. Firstly, they were technically superior, and dominant in possession, which was hardly a surprise.
Secondly, and more worryingly, they were tactically smarter, and also benefited from glaring errors that made a mockery of the flattering pre-match defensive statistics. The two Croatian first-half goals came from the sweeping up of set-pieces; those little details that the manager speaks of so fondly.
"Tomorrow, we will have time to clarify what happened," said Trapattoni. "Croatia deserved to win because they were superior in midfield."
This depressing reverse means that Ireland face elimination if they lose to the world champions, Spain, in Gdansk on Thursday. There is no scenario in the earlier meeting of Italy and Croatia that would keep Trapattoni's side in the competition in that eventuality. After seven months of excited anticipation, it could all be over in less than seven days.
And, on this evidence, it's hard to see how the outsiders of Group C can upset a Spanish side that will punish inadequacies. "Surprises can happen," suggested Trapattoni. "We must recover from this and believe again."
Optimism was high before kick-off. The Irish fans warmed up by performing the 'Poznan' dance that was started in this city by supporters of Lech. Unfortunately, they were probably wishing their backs were turned as Croatia struck within three minutes.
Perhaps the emotion of the anthems and the incredible atmosphere generated by the green majority affected the Irish focus. A corner was conceded from a move borne out of poorly timed attempts at interceptions.
The subsequent delivery broke to Darijo Srna who reacted better than Robbie Keane and played an unorthodox one-two with Mario Mandzukic. When the Croatian captain's cross deflected off Stephen Ward, Mandzukic was in prime position to head the ball goalwards and take Given by surprise -- his response was too slow to prevent a nightmare start. Concerns linger about the 36-year-old's well-being.
Temporarily, Croatia sniffed blood, and surged forward, pressurising the Irish rearguard, thus leading to some scary moments in the defensive third. The physicality of Mandzukic and Jelavic was posing a serious problem. Gradually, though, Ireland started to apply pressure at the other end, with Kevin Doyle making a general nuisance of himself.
Croatian centre-halves Vedran Corluka and Gordon Schildenfeld clearly weren't enjoying it and when the latter hauled down the Wolves man in the 17th minute, parity was restored. McGeady's delivery was expertly judged, and Sean St Ledger rose highest to dispatch firmly beyond Stipe Pletikosa. Cue pandemonium in the Irish end, albeit slightly delayed as some moron in the crowd with a whistle led many to believe that a foul had been committed.
Suddenly, there was a spring in the Irish step, with echoes of Paris as the need to chase the game prompted adventure. Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews spent more time across the halfway line than usual in a frenetic period where anything seemed possible.
The Croats regrouped, and subtlely began to probe with intent. Consistently, they always appeared to have an extra man. "From the first minute, I thought it would be hard not to win this game," said Croatia boss Slaven Bilic. "I knew from the friendly last August that we were better. We were just stronger in attack in this game."
Yet the presence of Srna at right-back was crucial. Bilic often selects his skipper as a winger; and he spent large periods of the game in that role as Ward was double teamed. Russia had targeted the Portmarnock lad in a similar manner last September, and McGeady struggled to offer real defensive support; a switch with Duff might have helped.
The second Croatian goal, just shy of the interval, followed a sustained spell of pressure although, regrettably, the genesis of the move involved a prime moment for a counter-attack, but Whelan's execution to McGeady was poor. It led to another Balkan break, another delivery that was insufficiently cleared, and Modric outfoxing Keane at the edge of the box.
What followed then was painful. His shot was blocked, the Irish defence was as messy as the main square in Poznan on Saturday night, and Ward's swipe under pressure sliced the ball into the direction of Jelavic who was offside when Modric let rip, but onside from the ill-fated Irish clearance. With trademark calm, the Everton frontman clipped the ball over Given. Trapattoni later questioned FIFA's interpretation of the rules -- although replays suggested that a foul on Ward might have been the injustice. The scoreline was a fair reflection, however.
The expectant travelling army waited for a big response upon resumption. Instead, they were punished with a replay. Bilic's men were always two seconds ahead of their opponents, and when Ivan Perisic chipped into the dangerzone, Mandzukic was there to steer a header that struck the post, rebounded off Given and nestled in the bottom corner. "That killed us," admitted Robbie Keane.
A hammer blow. Trapattoni responded with Plan B: Jon Walters and Simon Cox for Doyle and McGeady. Incredibly harsh on Doyle, whose contribution was greater than Keane, while opting for Cox on the left wing will have perplexed both James McClean and Stephen Hunt.
But while Walters held the ball up well and Ireland did have an equal share of possession in the second half, the end product was lacking. Naturally, Croatia showed less ambition with a view to closing out the game, although they were fortunate when another clumsy tackle from Schildenfeld should have resulted in a penalty. Keane was clipped but the Dutch ref Bjorn Kuipers was unmoved -- and perhaps influenced by the howls from the Croatians who were protesting that Ireland had played on with Mandzukic lying injured further up the park. That was the end of Keane's miserable night, with Trapattoni belatedly sending for Shane Long with 15 minutes remaining.
The horse had already bolted though. As you would expect, the 73-year-old's charges maintained a high level of effort, and there were half chances. Andrews never stopped, threatening on a couple of occasions. Indeed, as the game ticked into injury-time, the West Brom man was presented with a fine opportunity to reduce the deficit. It was inches off target on a night where the gulf in class was, sadly, much greater.