Having somehow escaped defeat in their last two games, thanks in no small part to the prowess of Aston Villa's Richard Dunne, Ireland are looking more and more likely to qualify for the Euros. Here's how things stand at the moment.
“In football,” Bob Paisley once remarked, “you don’t always get what you deserve - and you don’t always deserve what you get.” If the legendary Liverpool manager had lived to see the Republic of Ireland’s recent matches against Slovakia and Russia, he would surely have said: “Told you so.” On both occasions Ireland were outplayed and should have lost. Yet each time they survived their opponents’ superior passing and movement to secure a pair of 0-0 draws in Group B of the Euro-2012 qualifying competition.
All of which means that if Ireland win their last two matches this month (away to Andorra and at home to Armenia), and if Slovakia beat Russia for the second time in thirteen months, Giovanni Trapattoni will lead Ireland to Poland and Ukraine as group winners. At worst, two victories will guarantee the Green Army a play-off. The fact that Irish fans would rather face Armenia in Yerevan than Dublin speaks volumes for the erratic progress of their national team since Trap succeeded the hapless Steve Staunton in early 2008.
Convinced that Ireland can play only one way, the veteran Italian manager refuses to deviate from a rigid 4-4-2 system. Players, fans and commentators know the consequences: Ireland are outnumbered in central midfield by 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 formations. Even when Russia tore Ireland to shreds during a 3-2 win at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium last season, Trap declined to make structural changes until the 65th minute, when his team trailed 3-0. Slovakia dominated for long periods in Dublin last month, and Armenia will also have a numerical advantage in midfield on October 11, which promises to be another nervous night for home supporters.
Not surprisingly, Ireland are much more comfortable away from home, where the onus to be creative rests with the opposition. Under Trapattoni, Ireland are unbeaten in competitive matches outside Dublin (4 wins, 6 draws), but have lost two of 10 qualifiers on home soil.
There are two ways of assessing Trap’s tenure. On the one hand, it can be said he has worked wonders to turn an ordinary group of players, some of whom don’t feature regularly for their clubs, into contenders for qualification based on disciplined defence and solid organisation. Ireland’s clean sheet in Moscow was their seventh shut-out in a row.
At the heart of Trap’s system are two central midfielders who sit tight and harry opponents into error. Problem is, when Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews win possession they have all the creativity of a wrecking-ball, and the onus on the wide players (Duff and McGeady) to unlock defences is enormous.
The counter-argument runs that the quality of Ireland’s attacking play is an embarrassment, and that a team containing Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane (51 goals in 111 international matches) is capable of much better. To which Trap once famously replied: “If you want entertainment, go to La Scala!”
At the heart of Trap’s system are two central midfielders who sit tight and harry opponents into error. Problem is, when Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews win possession they have all the creativity of a wrecking-ball, and the onus on the wide players (Duff and McGeady) to unlock defences is enormous. Only once in 38 matches has Trap experimented with 4-4-1-1, using James McCarthy to play behind Shane Long in a 3-2 home defeat by Uruguay last March. “Trapattoni is a very stubborn man,” says Liam Brady, who played for him at Juventus and assisted him in his current role for almost two years.
As opponents find Ireland’s predictability increasingly easy to counter, there are signs that Trap’s players are growing frustrated. Doyle didn’t hide at disappointment at being replaced after less than an hour in Moscow. And Stephen Hunt was surprised that McGeady, having played just three minutes for Spartak Moscow since early June because of injury, was selected ahead of him against Slovakia last month.
“Thank God for Richard Dunne!” declared Trapattoni, marvelling at the epic performance of the popular defender in Moscow. “I felt Saint Patrick was looking down on us,” smiled Trap, who was born – wait for it – on St. Patrick’s Day 72 years ago.
Paul McGrath, who knows all about defensive duties at the highest level, tweeted his own tribute to Dunne’s defiant display. “That was the best performance I have seen from any Irish centre-half – and that includes myself,” gushed the hero of Ireland’s win against Italy at the 1994 World Cup finals.
Russia’s manager Dick Advocaat echoed Paisley and followed Trap in hinting at divine intervention. “You don’t always get what you deserve, and tonight God was not on our side,” sighed the disappointed Dutchman, whose team still lead Group B by two points. Three hours later Armenia inflicted a shock 4-0 home defeat on Slovakia to throw the group wide open. Whose side will God be on when the final two rounds of matches are played this month?
One thing is certain. With four teams in the shake-up, an almighty battle is in prospect. Don’t be surprised if Trap reaches for the bottle of holy water he used when managing Italy at the 2002 World Cup finals.
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