Saturday 16 December 2017

Now, more than ever, Trap will cling to defensive mindset

Daunting draw raises hopes of heroics but the manager will not abandon his caution, writes Dion Fanning

Ireland will play Croatia in Poznan on June 10, Spain
in Gdansk on June 14 and Italy in Poznan on June 18
Ireland will play Croatia in Poznan on June 10, Spain in Gdansk on June 14 and Italy in Poznan on June 18

Dion Fanning

Nothing that happened in Kiev on Friday night will have altered Giovanni Trapattoni's thinking.

If the draw against world champions Spain and Italy brought any clarity, it will be to those who expected Ireland to change their style. There was never going to be a change in Trapattoni's approach despite some emollient noises. Now few would want it.

It is a tremendous and terrifying draw for Ireland -- one which allows them to fear exit at the group stage but anticipate that it could be heroic. Expectations are at rock bottom which is where Trapattoni likes them.

Ireland are in a group that is a reward for qualification and a brutal reminder of what they must now accomplish if they are to make it to the knock-out stages.

There will be reasons advanced as to why Spain can be beaten but the man who tweeted on Friday that 'at least we'll finally be able to put the Keith Andrews v Xavi debate to bed' summed everything up.

If you were to create a side that is the opposite of Spain, it would be Ireland. Ireland may as well aim to surrender possession against a side who weren't going to give them the ball anyway.

In his autobiography, Pepe Reina admits that when the World Cup was won in South Africa, he realised how things would change for the Spanish team.

"Our success has meant that teams will now go to extraordinary lengths to try and stop us from playing. Some opponents get every single player behind the ball to try and deny us space and we then have to try and find a way of getting through them. Others let us have possession but defend deep and try to hit us on the counter- attack. Then there are those who go to really extreme measures, like Holland did in the World Cup final, by resorting to being physical. That is the price that we are paying for our success."

Ireland will probably employ most of those methods, as they have against nearly every side they've played. They won't be physical like the Dutch in the World Cup final, although you can probably forget about the counter-attacks as well.

The opening game against Croatia in Poznan will be critical. Trapattoni will hope to avoid defeat while everybody else will see it as the game Ireland can hope to win. Victory would change everything but Ireland's history as well as the history of opening games suggests a draw.

Trapattoni says he hopes to have qualified by the time Ireland play Italy in the final game but that is unlikely. The night before Ireland played Italy in Bari, Trapattoni received a standing ovation when he walked to the podium to conduct his press conference. He is an emotional man but when it comes to Italian football, the depth of feeling is mutual.

For this reason, he is believed to have changed his mind about a training camp in Italy before the tournament. The attention on the manager and the players would be intense if they were to take up residence in his homeland. Instead Ireland will probably travel to Portugal to complete their preparations.

They will be thorough. Some of the players might struggle with Trapattoni's demands over a month but they may now see the merits. The players will probably endure another pre-season regime before the tournament but they may have the advantage of being fresher than their opponents, particularly Spain, who will have been playing non-stop for four years by the time of next summer's finals.

Ireland's strategy will require fitness. The most likely if optimistic scenario would see them needing a win against Italy in the final game, assuming Spain win all their matches.

He joked on Friday about how Ireland might benefit if both sides needed a draw in the final match although if that was the case, the other teams in the group would not be laughing. Cesare Prandelli seemed distraught to have come up against Trapattoni: "I learned a lot from him but some things he kept secret."

Italy qualified ahead of Ireland for the World Cup in South Africa, something both sides might regret.

Trapattoni glorifies Italian football and, as he got to know the Irish team, he was too respectful of the Italians in that campaign.

There was nothing to fear from that side, which went on to draw with Paraguay and New Zealand before losing to Slovakia and being eliminated.

That Italian side returned to headlines calling it the blackest day in their history. Their recovery since then under Prandelli must be placed in the context of what went before. He has tried to remove all memory of past difficulties. Like Laurent Blanc in France, he went for change. His first squad left all but one of the players who had played in the World Cup out and, more importantly, Antonio Cassano, who Marcello Lippi had delighted in omitting, was recalled.

This was a symbolic change and since then some of the old players -- most notably Gianluigi Buffon who has recovered from injury -- have returned. But it is a very different Italy. For the key game against Slovenia in September, only three players who started the game against Slovakia in Johannesburg were in the first XI.

Cassano is now a doubt for more serious reasons as he recovers from heart surgery after falling ill on a plane returning from Milan's game against Roma. He may not recover in time for the European Championships while his partner in the game against Slovenia, Giuseppe Rossi, is also a doubt as he continues his rehabilitation after knee surgery.

In their absence, Mario Balotelli will be given his opportunity and, no matter what he does with his chance, it will be entertaining.

Trapattoni will insist the Italians cannot be underestimated but there may be as much danger in overestimating them.

Nobody knows how to judge Croatia. Until their surprisingly comfortable play-off victory against Turkey, it was expected that Slaven Bilic would be looking for work right now, rather than sharing a stage with Trapattoni, Vicente Del Bosque and Prandelli.

Croatia were disappointed to finish second in their group behind Greece and many expected the worst in the play-off.

They have experienced players who have played at the World Cup and European Championships (Josip Simunic, booked three times by Graham Poll in 2006, remains in defence) but they have been moulded by Bilic.

He is energetic and emotional but his side can be unpredictable. They were superb in the European Championships in 2008 before they blew it against Turkey in the quarter-finals and then they finished third in their World Cup qualifying group.

They are not as old a team as Ireland and many would like to see the Dinamo Zagreb 17-year-old Mateo Kovacic brought through. Ajax offered €1m for him when he was recovering from a broken leg and he has been watched by scouts from Barcelona while recent reports claimed he wanted to join Manchester United. Bilic may gamble on him but even if he doesn't Croatia are another side whose ability to keep the ball may dovetail nicely with Ireland's desire to give it away.

Nothing will change except the level of anticipation. The summer had purpose when Ireland qualified, now it has edge, and, as the Scottish commentator said, a "feeling of great excitement tempered by enormous anxiety." They are the moments Irish football understands.

"We are convinced we can play against the world," Trapattoni said on Friday night. The world champions are waiting. The conviction will be tested over eight days next June.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport