Monday 11 December 2017

Richard Sadlier: Players must rediscover trick of Paris magic

Croatia scalp within our grasp if we play to our potential, says Richard Sadlier

It was Richard Dunne's post-match assessment of Ireland's draw with Hungary last Monday, but it summarised most of Giovanni Trapattoni's era in charge. "We done what we always do. We didn't have it all our own way and we defended hard and made sure we kept a clean sheet."

It was one of the most disjointed and unconvincing displays Ireland have produced in a long time, despite being instructed to do exactly as they have done on every previous occasion. A repeat of that this evening and there will be no clean sheet. In fact, with how the group is likely to unfold, hopes of a second round place will end in the process.

The template for success for this Ireland team under Trapattoni was created in Paris in 2009. Nine of the players who began that game against France will start this evening and their intentions will be exactly the same. It won't be about overlapping full-backs or advancing midfielders or retaining the ball for long spells. The players know where they need to be and what they need to do when Croatia have the ball.

Eleven clean sheets in the last 14 games indicates a defensive discipline few in this tournament could claim to match. It will be needed against all three opponents, but alone it won't be enough.

That second leg in Paris still ranks as the finest all-round showing under the Italian and now is the time to reproduce it. Whatever the true cause of that performance was (and player mutiny has been denied by those on the inside), it was far more than the dismissive line that Ireland simply needed to win. Ireland have needed to win several times since then but came nowhere near to playing the same way.

There was a brashness in how they played that night. Fear of failure, the hallmark of any team more comfortable in the role of underdog, was replaced with bravery and confidence. The discipline and commitment was there, as always, but allied to a belief that a win was achievable, the full potential of the team shone through.

Opening games are usually referred to as must-not-lose, but Ireland will need to win a game if they are to progress to the second stage. If they can summon that bravery this evening and avoid focusing on the consequences of conceding a goal or losing the game, the win is eminently achievable.

Claims that Ireland perform when it matters most and produce results when needed most are difficult to support. You don't go 10 years without qualifying for a major tournament if that's the case. But it's a curious position in which they find themselves. Do they stick

to the methods which have been so successful in getting them this far (albeit against lesser opponents than they are about to face) or evolve the game plan to produce something similar to the performance in Paris? It may have been the same system in operation that night but it was unrecognisable from how they played last week.

The system gets all the attention in Trapattoni's teams, but it's the players who take to the field. Playing with two strikers and two wingers sounds more adventurous than we know it is, but Aiden McGeady showed against Bosnia that he has been under-performing for years and justified the criticism he has received along the way. James McClean will not be needed if he continues to play to that level. But Ireland are underdogs for a reason and progress to the quarter-finals would be a monumental achievement given the quality of Group C.

The crumbs of hope are potential fatigue in the Spain squad, distraction or shame in the Italian squad or disappointment in the Croatia squad because of the withdrawal of their star striker Ivica Olic. Luka Modric will provide the greatest threat, but if he doesn't play well Croatia won't either.

But the real cause for optimism should stem from Ireland's own preparation. While the media were in a flutter to explain the circumstances that led to the cancellation of Wednesday's training session, the players were enjoying their rest. Non-stories become headline news because of the need to fill column inches, but overall the build-up has gone very well.

Dunne said the Hungary game was more difficult because it was played so close to the biggest matches of their lives. "These are the games you grow up dreaming of," said Damien Duff.

At 7.45 this evening, the talking will finally stop.

Sunday Indo Sport

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