Looking for answers to Spanish exam
IRELAND'S last major tournament ended in a penalty shoot-out defeat to Spain almost a decade ago on a night when Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given tried manfully to overcome what, even then, was a fearsome Spanish opposition.
How fearsome? Well, a little midfielder called Xavi was an unused substitute.
Since then Spain have won a European Championships (in 2008) and a World Cup (in 2010) and their manager's Vicente Del Bosque has a clear message. "Euro, World Cup, Euro," he declared as Spain romped through their qualifying group for this tournament.
When Ireland line up against Spain at the PGE Arena in Gdansk on 14 June, they will likely face only two veterans from their 2002 upset win: Carles Puyol and Iker Casillas, then aged 24 and 21 respectively, and embarking on stellar careers with club and country.
The two of course ultimately combined for the small matter of a European Championship and a World Cup. Spain are no longer European football's brittle underachievers, but rather the most fluid and eloquent international side of their generation.
Their triumph at Euro 2008 was brilliant, the 2010 World Cup victory less so -- and there is now an accepted method for playing Spain: defending deep and in numbers. The fact that England would do so in a home friendly shows how commonplace it now is. The fact that they won 1-0, as they did last month, shows why teams do it but it's unlikely to have done a great deal of lasting damage to the Spanish psyche.
In much the same way as most team's know how they should play against Barcelona, knowing it and doing it are two very different things.
With their 3-1 win over Scotland, Spain had equalled the record of 14 consecutive wins in this competition.
"They are unplayable," lamented Scotland's Steven Naismith. "They move the ball so quickly, it's hard to track." One hope for the Republic is that Spain are starting to admit that world domination has its downsides.
"I'm worried that we're seen as favourites for the European Championship. Anything except winning will be seen as a disaster and that doesn't help us at all," Del Bosque said before the England game.
A pretty thin straw, admittedly. If Spain, with their seven Barcelona regulars, fall into a vortex of hitherto unforeseen pressure there is always Italy's defence for Ireland throw to themselves against. The Azzurri conceded two goals in 10 qualifiers: a remarkably frugal record that Trapattoni, as a student of Italian defensive cunning, will at least know how to approach.
The mention of Greece serves as a clarion call to the smaller nations, however freakish their 1-0 win over Portugal in Lisbon seven years ago.
Nicknamed the 'Pirate Ship' by their own media, for their habit of pinching big results, Greece raised the trophy with such household names as Taksis Fyssas and Zisis Vryzas. Angelos Charisteas, who scored the only goal, was a £3.8m purchase by Ajax, but now earns his bred at Panetolikos.
To see Greece beat the Portugal of Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Deco was no high water mark in football's artistic development, but it did shake Europe's class system.
An experienced manager with an organised team that are difficult to break down was the template for Greek success (other than Spain and Italy, both in Ireland's group, Greece are the last team to win a major international tournament involving European nations).
As Greece showed, sort of, this is a tournament that rewards boldness.
As discordant in the memory as Charisteas' goal in Lisbon is Spain crossing the Rubicon in Vienna through a Fernando Torres goal.
After that win over Germany, Luis Aragones, the Spain coach, said of his match winner: "He can do anything. Why? He has such extraordinary speed and he knows how to dribble at pace. He is so young and could learn to do anything.
He could be one of the best players in the world, no doubt."
That promise has faded for El Nino but Spain remain formidable, with David Villa taking over the goalscoring duties and Gerard Pique, Juan Mata and David Silva arriving at maturity. The 2008 core has been joined also by Sergio Busquets, Jesus Navas, Javier Martinez and Fernando Llorente.
The consolation for Ireland is that, much like 2002, Spain's bench may be strong but the 11 that they put out on the pitch showed in the opening game of the last World Cup against Switzerland that they can be beaten.
From Trapattoni and Ireland's point of view, there remains the hope that Spain will have their off-day one game later. (© Daily Telegraph, London)