by EMMET MALONE
SOCCER: AFTER FOUR years of insisting he knows his best team and that it can effectively play only one system, Giovanni Trapattoni admitted to still being unsure last night as to how best to stop a Spain side that has swept all before it over the four years.
Tonight we find out whether more than 50 years of experience has really equipped the Italian to engineer one of the greatest results in the history of Ireland football.
The 73-year-old insisted last night “only the players can perform miracles”, but suddenly there was uncertainty about who precisely would be entrusted with the task of producing the magic required to secure at least a draw against the best side in the world.
It is almost without precedent during his time with the Republic of Ireland for Trapattoni to decline to publicly name his starting line-up on the eve of a match but last night he said he couldn’t “always give the line-up to our opponents”. His players, he claimed, had recovered from the psychological blow of their defeat in Poznan, but maybe the manager himself is showing signs of still being a little rattled.
To judge by what he has said, Jonathan Walters is likely to start with Kevin Doyle the most obvious candidate to make way. Trapattoni said he would not make “three or four” changes but might make “one or two”. If there is a second, and it’s far from certain, then Stephen Ward looks to be the most vulnerable player in the wake of his performance against Croatia and John O’Shea could switch to the left side of the defence with Stephen Kelly coming in at right back.
Were his options stronger, the manager might well look to reshape things rather more radically for key members of his side like O’Shea and Robbie Keane will scarcely be starting tonight on the basis of what they contributed against Croatia. In reality, though, all Trapattoni can do is tinker around the edges and so Walters is set to be asked both to help reinforce Ireland’s midfield as it grapples with the task of breaking up Spain’s fluent passing and provide support to Keane in the hope they can form some sort of attacking threat.
It is not the most promising of scenarios and a pretty strong case for a more fundamental tactical rethink can certainly be made.
But Trapattoni has spent too long drumming this system into this group of players to start getting back to basics on the eve of such a critically important encounter. Once again he will have to settle for asking almost all of the same players to do what they always have only better, much, much better.
The manager hasn’t tired lately of citing the example of Chelsea in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich for the way they held their nerve, kept the Germans at bay and ultimately triumphed but for all his troubles in the build up to that game, Roberto Di Matteo did have stronger cards to play on the personnel front.
Something very close to his game plan is likely to be employed by Trapattoni at the Gdansk Arena where the Irish must somehow impose themselves on the game, disrupt their opponents and maintain the possibility of scoring against the run of play if they are to have a successful night.
The Italian mentioned “luck” as one of the components that goes to making up the game of football and they seem likely to require a good dose of that too. (Ireland’s only two previous wins over Spain in competitive internationals came courtesy of own goals.) For all Chelsea’s grit and determination in the games against Barcelona and Bayern they still needed their opponents to miss a fair few scoring chances.
A favourable refereeing decision or two would be nice too but the Portuguese official, who oversaw both the Champions League final and the qualifier last September against Slovakia in Dublin has a good reputation and Trapattoni’s men are unlikely to be handed any gifts.
It will be crucial that they do not oblige the match official to put Spain in the driving seat. The world and European champions must be kept out of the box as much as possible and, because of their lack of height in the centre, pushed wide at every opportunity. Bookings, meanwhile, must not be picked up cheaply.
Even then, it will take a supreme effort by Richard Dunne and co if the team is really to have anything at the end to show for their night’s work. He and the other big players will need to lead and the lesser lights follow with little or no margin for the sort of errors that occurred on Sunday.
Keane, it was heartening to see, was almost as feisty at yesterday’s press conference as he had been in advance of this team’s greatest performance of recent years; the 1-0 win over 90 minutes in Paris. Tonight, he and the pretty much every other Irish player on the field will have to be at their best.