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Spanish test holds no fear for Doolin's spirited underdogs

AS HALF of the eight competing sides at the U-19 European Championships in Romania departed from the tournament hotel over the last two days, it left behind plenty of space to spot the differences between the Ireland and Spain squads that clash in tonight's semi-final.

Sitting quietly in one corner of the foyer of the grand Intercontinental Hotel are Spanish players in red tops, eyes buried into iPods from which music filters to their ears via oversized headphones.

Seldom do the eyes of team-mates make contact, despite their close proximity.

The rare occasions that require interaction are communicated by head gestures.

But even those ear-guards can't drown out the contrasting sounds coming from the opposite side.

A trio of giddy Irish players have just emerged from the lift and the noisy banter between them, and the hotel staff they've charmed over the past 10 days, prompts the lobby folk to look only one way.

Innocent and inoffensive, the joking slips away and the Irish players step out into the hotel grounds for a leisurely walk.

Their buoyancy makes it easy to forget that this Irish team has been written off on many occasions during the season.

Tonight's encounter won't be registering on the Richter-scale for expectancy from outside of the camp.

One of the Spanish midfielders set to start tonight, Rubén Pardo, waded in yesterday with his own version of cockiness.

"Ireland are a very physical team and are well organised," the Real Sociedad star noted of Paul Doolin's well-drilled crew

"We have to play as we know by moving the ball from side to side. In the end, spaces and players will come and we will not miss the goal."

That type of talk should be enough to rile this Ireland team, not that they need any extra incentive.

After all, they are 90 minutes away from marking their first appearance in nine years at the championships with a place in Monday's final at Chiajna, also the venue for tonight's fixture.

"I've heard things about Spain's players but we've a good group and that's all that matters to me," said Joe Shaughnessy, the Ireland and Aberdeen defender.

"We've seen team lists and the standard of clubs they're at, yet a lot of our lads are at Premier League clubs in England.

"It's not that long ago that we needed to beat Italy to qualify for the finals and won 3-0".

Doolin's mood yesterday seemed calm as the current in the nearby Dambovita River running through the capital.

Organised as ever, the Dubliner devoted a portion of yesterday morning's training session to the practising of penalties -- they will be needed if 120 minutes fail to divide the nations tonight.

"We just don't know -- it may not go that far," he said. "The only thing we are looking for from the players is if they do the right things and perform to what they can, we'll take the rest that goes with it.

"So far they have done that. We got out of the group -- that was the aim at the start.

"We are in the semi-finals and now we want to be in the final. We are under no illusion -- it's a very tough game ahead. The good thing is we saw something of them before when all of us watched them beat Belgium last week.

"We are in the same situation as we were when we had to beat Italy to qualify -- the Italians are no pushovers when it comes to football.

"This is a one-off game. The tournament is different now. It's a different competition -- it's a knockout competition and knockout football is different."

Viewers watching the semi-final back home on RTE can expect Ireland to adopt a patient approach in their quest to topple the favourites.

"We've got to be very careful that we don't think 'ah, we'll take these on'," said the former Cork City and Drogheda United manager. "It is a 90-minute game and you have to make sure they are right.

"I'd say if the game is open, there is no better team -- whether it is Spain, Barcelona or Real Madrid, they are very good on the counter. That is the thing that we have to get right and it is something that we have spoken to the players about."

Ireland (probable) -- McCarey (Wolves); Walker (Wrexham), Egan (Sunderland), O'Connor (Blackburn), Shaughnessy (Aberdeen); Murray (Watford), Carruthers (Aston Villa), O'Sullivan (Blackburn), Hendrick (Derby), Forde (Wolves); Smith (Watford).

Spain (probable) -- Badia (Espanyol); Carvajal (Real Madrid), Gómez (Barcelona), Miquel (Arsenal), Aurtenetxe (Athletico Bilbao); Sarabia (Getafe), Pardo (Real Sociedad), González (Athletico Madrid), Deulofeu (Barcelona); Morata (Real Madrid), Juanmi (Malaga).

Ref -- C Turpin (Fra)

Spain U-19 v Ireland U-19

Live, RTE 2 and Eurosport 6.45

Irish Independent