In the past two European Championships, there have been teams that went far despite low expectations. Whether it was Greece in 2004 or Russia in 2008, there seems to be a recent trend of at least one team making a shock run through the tournament. That’s partially why we may need to prepare ourselves for another Cinderella team to captivate the world as this summer’s Euro is set to begin. Therefore, out of all the sleepers vying for recognition this summer, I expect the Republic of Ireland to storm past the imagination of most.
Unlike the more hyped squads, the Irish are heading into Poland with most doubting whether they’ll advance out of a tough group featuring Spain, Italy and Croatia. As a result, the spotlight is hardly on Ireland as they aren’t expected to cause too much of a stir this summer which is what the Irish likely prefer.
Unlike heralded squads like England or Italy, Ireland faces little controversy. They don’t bear any distractions and any injury related concerns they had about defender John O’Shea or goalie Shay Given being fit have been put to rest. Unlike other teams which bear the world on their shoulders, the Irish take pride in just being in the Euro.
Yet, despite the little amount of pressure, what else is it about Ireland that makes them an appealing dark horse? For starters, they bear a striking resemblance to Greece in 2004 in many ways. Both Ireland and Greece are small countries with little history of success which makes them so humble just to be included in a premier competition.
Another similarity is that both Greece in 04 and Ireland in the present are run by great managers who use similar tactics. For Greece, Otto Rehhagel led his team to a championship by playing sturdy, conservative football which required charismatic defending, strong performances from their goalie and clinical finishing up front.
Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni runs a similar system to Rehhagel’s in that shape and discipline are integral to success. With having a coach as decorated as the Italian is, the players have seamlessly followed his tactics as they know they can make any match difficult for their opponents.
Trapattoni also has players that are skillful and strong-minded enough to follow his strategy to perfection on the field. Of course, it starts in the back as Ireland will no doubt be elevated by having Given once again in goal after fitness concerns. On a team where the goalie must be one of the more active participants in order to win, Ireland has an experienced shot-stopper in Given who has repeatedly shown throughout his career that he can make numerous crucial saves especially when it comes to penalties.
In terms of their back-line, Ireland may have one of the more physically imposing defenses heading into the competition. The back four which consists of O’Shea, Sean St. Ledger, Richard Dunne and Stephen Ward are all sturdy and have great chemistry with each other when it comes to thwarting chances. Teams who will possess the ball more than Ireland may become frustrated with being repeatedly stopped by defenders who’ll fight to the last second.
In terms of midfield, Ireland will likely often not be able to maintain possession against elite playmakers. However, they will have experienced central midfielders in Stoke’s Glenn Whelan and West Brom’s Keith Andrews who’ll support the defense and do the “dirty work” in retrieving the ball through hard tackles and vigorous marking. Ireland also has promising, young midfielders in Darren Gibson and James McLean who can maintain possession, score and, set up their forwards.
Ireland’s central midfielders will try to link up with the wingers who will have to create chances and provide proper ball service to the strikers. On one end, there will be the familiar presence of Damien Duff who will rack up assists and score the occasional goal. The other winger will be Aiden McGeady who at age 26 has already been very successful with Celtic and Spartak Moscow. Like Duff, he will also be vital when it come to getting assists through setting up the forwards.
Besides Ireland’s defense, the strikers may be one of the best aspects of this team. They will be lead by the incomparable captain, Robbie Keane, who provides class, familiarity and expert finishing skills. He’ll be supported by Kevin Doyle who may be one of the more important members of the squad due to his pace, hard work, and goal-scoring abilities. Doyle is very good at holding the ball up the field when it’s cleared by the back-line which is important because it allows other players to come up. If a team over commits against Ireland, Doyle can spearhead a chance
Off the bench, Ireland has two very valuable forwards in Jonathan Walters and Shane Long. While Walters isn’t often on the scoring sheet, his contributions go beyond statistics as his burly, physical presence attracts defenders and allows teammates more room to operate. Yet, when Ireland desperately needs a goal, they have a fantastic weapon in West Brom’s Shane Long who has often come through in the Premier League and for Ireland with crucial goals. In the few chances Ireland will have to score in matches, they need players like Keane, Doyle and Long to supply moments of brilliance which they are all capable of.
Besides their players, Ireland can also take away positives from who’ll they’ll face in the group stage. Italy is massively struggling right now because of the fallout of the match-fixing scandal and due to their lack of proven goal-scorers. They have little confidence and Ireland’s defense may frustrate the likes of Mario Balotelli and Antonio di Natale who have both struggled for Italy.
While they are one of the favorites, Spain is another team that may have trouble scoring on Ireland because they don’t have a forward like David Villa who is out for the tournament. Spain will have to depend on the likes of the struggling Fernando Torres, the inexperienced Fernando Llorente, and the inconsistent Pedro which may lead to problems when trying to score against strong, organized defensive units like Ireland.
Croatia will also be a tough match for Ireland on Sunday as they have many talented footballers in Luka Modric, Nikica Jelavic, and Eduardo. Yet coach Slaven Bilic believes that the Irish are a force to be reckoned with as he stated, “I have big respect for Ireland – I played against them last summer. They’re an unbelievably competitive team. They are very solid, they play very simple football, and they don’t take a lot of risks. But they are still dangerous enough with some really good forwards – two strikers and two wide men who are very quick. One on one, they can decide a game.”
In regards to the prospects of making a run out of the group stage, Ireland is set to either play France or England in the quarterfinals. If it’s France, Ireland will no doubt have vengeance on their minds after the notorious Thierry Henry handball which unfairly ended their 2010 World Cup hopes. If they play England, expect the match to be a tenacious affair where either side could win as they’ll both play for the counterattack.
Overall, predicting how Ireland will do depends on how well can the players follow Trapattoni’s tactics and become an elite conservative team. With the right amount of fortitude from the defense and clinical prowess up front, Ireland may be primed to shock the world.
A little luck wouldn’t hurt either.