Trap needs to defy logic
Ireland require fairytale performance against overwhelming favourites
IN war times, Gdansk was regarded as the crossroads of Europe, a place of considerable strategic importance. Napoleon described the port city as the 'key to everything.'
General Trapattoni brings his Irish team to that crossroads this evening, knowing they must fight for their lives
"I'm sure people have written the script already," says Robbie Keane, conscious that morale at home was punctured by Sunday's loss to Croatia, and the scale of what comes next. There's a sense that the credits are ready to roll on our Euro 2012 adventure.
Certainly, the plot is quite straightforward. Ninety minutes to stay in the competition. The opponents are the defending champions, the world champions, and possess the very best players in the world. It's set up for an epic.
But then, from day one, Trapattoni has always insisted that the result is more important than the show -- and this is the case in point.
The build-up to this game in Spain has been dominated by discussion about the ropey playing surface in Gdansk. They fear an ugly spectacle. In truth, Ireland want one. Anything to keep the show on the road, and avoid the deflation of a dead rubber in Poznan on Monday.
So, how to achieve the impossible? Trapattoni has told his players what he demands of them but, in a break from his usual pre-match tradition, he is keeping his starting XI under wraps.
In the past, he has perhaps named 10 of the 11 and left one position open. Yet there was no specific info forthcoming in yesterday's pre-match, save for the fact that we shouldn't be expecting four, five or six changes from the Croatian fixture.
"One, maybe two," he suggested. He was more forthcoming on Monday evening, and the reality is that it boils down to how he chooses to cope with Spain's inevitable dominance in possession.
The indications are that he will go with Jonathan Walters as a strike partner for Robbie Keane, albeit in a role that would make him closer to a third central midfielder.
That would be harsh on Kevin Doyle, who was one of the few to emerge with credit from Sunday. If there is another change on Trapattoni's mind, it might be in the wide department. In the past, Stephen Hunt has come into games where covering inside is an absolute priority.
But it would be a surprise if Aiden McGeady was sacrificed for that reason. His pace is valuable for the counter attack.
If he went with the same team, then Keane could function as the auxiliary midfielder, but, in the PGE Arena yesterday, the skipper spoke of his familiarity with a lone-striking role.
He will need to improve on his contribution to the Croatian game should he be tasked as the out ball for a team that is likely to be under pressure. Much will depend, of course, on what troops Vicente Del Bosque sends into battle
THE SPANISH PLAN
Trapattoni's opposite number gave even less away as the Spanish press found a variety of ways to ask the same question.
Would he send out a team with no recognised strikers again? Ireland are preparing to face Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente, either of whom would dramatically alter the dynamic of the favourites' side. It would provide a focal point for their attacks, an avenue that could prise open gaps for others.
"We trust all our forwards," said Del Bosque. Cesc Fabregas was the most advanced in their draw with Italy and did provide a goal, but the consensus is that he will be coming from deeper tonight.
Del Bosque could sacrifice one of his holding pair, Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso, or else hook David Silva and go with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas behind Torres or Llorente. A nice problem to have.
He spoke in complimentary terms about the Irish team in the manner that most people do. He hailed their fighting spirit, their aggression, their mentality. The only player he actually namechecked was Doyle. "Very dangerous," he said, "A very good footballer."
Nevertheless, the most telling Del Bosque observation emanated from a query about the Irish aptitude in set-piece situations.
"We have to be careful," he replied. "We know what strengths they have. They are very good in set-pieces and they know how to play high balls. That's what we have to count on. But then, that's the basics."
In other words, if Spain do nothing silly, they should prevail.
Keane brushed off any suggestion that Ireland suffered stagefright on Sunday, even if the manager appeared to believe that it was prevalent in the panicked start to the game which was punished by Croatia.
The Spanish camp feel that an early goal is the best way to kill off the qualities that exist in the Ireland side. Crush their spirit.
The stadium will again be a sea of green and emotions will run high at the start. It's a dreadful cliche, but a good start is essential. Spain do not have a recent history of relinquishing a position of strength.
For encouragement, Trapattoni is drawing on the memories of their jousts with France and Italy over the past four years. Ireland weren't 11/1 for those games, though. But the 73-year-old is not ruling out mission impossible.
"We're going to play our own game in the knowledge of how good Spain are," he said.
"And I repeat, I'm proud to be the manager of these players. I think we have good mentality, good commitment, good technical ability.
"And we need strength, a strong attitude, and a bit of luck. I'm not saying that I'm making a bet. But, I think also, we can win. Why not?"
There are multiple answers to that question, so this is a night where Ireland have to challenge logic and produce a fairytale. It would be nice to remember this beautiful city in the same terms as Stuttgart, Genoa and the Giants Stadium. The percentage call, however, is that we have reached the end of the road.
Verdict: Ireland 1 Spain 3