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Ireland's John O'Shea, left, is pulled off by Robbie Keane during a training session of Republic of Ireland at the Euro 2012 soccer championship in a stadium in Gdynia Poland, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) *** Local Caption *** Soccer Euro 2012 Training Ireland.JPEG-03a28.jpg
Ireland's John O'Shea, left, is pulled off by Robbie Keane during a training session of Republic of Ireland at the Euro 2012 soccer championship in a stadium in Gdynia Poland, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) *** Local Caption *** Soccer Euro 2012 Training Ireland.JPEG-03a28.jpg

Euro 2012: Ireland ready for 'opportunity of redemption'

Duncan Castles goes inside the Irish training camp as Giovanni Trapattoni's men hope to make amends for Croatia defeat.

"Talk with your feet. Play with your heart," advises the PR-speak slogan along the side of Ireland's team bus.

"I'd be happier if they played with they're feet and talked with their heart," quips one Irish newspaper reporter.

Ireland has never strained for wit and wisdom. Were this European Championship played on laptop and microphone, their journalists would be heading for the Kiev final. It is on the grass as green as their famous shirts that matters become more complicated.

Complicated, but never yet embarrassing. If Ireland make it to major tournaments only intermittently, their last being the 2002 World Cup, they leave them on honourable terms. Though their football would never be flamboyant, it would always deliver results. The Irish have never been traumatised by tournament football.

Now they have begun to worry that this is their turn. Conceding to Croatia inside three minutes presaged the nation's heaviest defeat at a Euros or World Cup; not once before Sunday's Poznan discord had they conceded three goals in a match at this level. It hardly helps that their next opponents hold both trophies.

Their pride tweaked by the Italians, Spain await in Gdansk. Decamping themselves to the Poland's "Tricity", Ireland's estimated 35,000 travelling supporters have been occupying the bars and dancing in the squares, belting footballs through the air, and removing Spanish flags from the lamp posts.

Outside Ireland's team hotel, a group of green-clad fans scrambles after an official tracksuit thrown down from a player's bedroom. The coveted garment is swiftly followed by a bucket full of water as all enjoy the practical joke. At their Gosir Stadium training base an assistant coach teases a pair of reporters over the solemnity of their dress. "Why do you wear black?" inquires Marco Tardelli with a grin.

Irish travellers and Italian mentors alike are trying their best, but the tension cannot be so easily dissipated. The open training session that precedes possesses an intensity, Aiden McGeady biting verbally back at Tardelli during a half-field 11 against 11. "The players want to turn this situation around," says Tardelli. "They are fit, they are professional players and I think now, psychologically, they are ready to face Spain."

There is a lot of talk of mentality, disappointment and attitude from the Ireland squad. Giovanni Trapattoni, their coach, has reinterpreted the Croatia defeat as less comprehensive than it initially appeared. A combination of uncharacteristic errors, goals conceded at bad moments (the second arriving just before half time), and officiating mistakes.

Tardelli twice mentions "the penalty the referee forget to give us" for a clear foul on Robbie Keane, who is thoroughly onside with the Italian reinterpretation. "We have to approach Spain the way we have been doing," says Ireland's captain. "If you look at the way we conceded goals the other night the timing of them absolutely killed us. Apart from that they didn't really open us up and create a hell of a lot of chances. So, if we can just concentrate a little bit more."

Trapattoni neatly labels the Spain game as an "opportunity of redemption", urging his players to think about what they did to reach these finals. The near miraculous defiance of Russia en route to a play-off may be the most pertinent thought.

Though the 73 year old has used Darren O'Dea and Stephen Kelly in his first XI defence in training, the only alteration that may stick is exchanging Kevin Doyle, tactically one of his better performers last weekend, for the more robust Jon Walters. Trapattoni regularly objects to being described as such, but he is in essence a conservative coach.

Ireland prepared for the Euros in Tuscany where Trapattoni's multiple achievements in football were honoured by the town of Montecatini. During an onstage question and answer session the coach was asked to speak about his greatest victories on the field. "One victory I still regret is the defeat in Paris," formed part of Trapattoni's reply.

This was not seen as one of Trapattoni's famed linguistic gaffes ("I don't speak English very well, sometimes I'm not even good at Italian," he has said), but a reflection of his character. When asked to address his mind to wins, it drifted back to defeats.

Trapattoni is obsessed with avoiding them. Building his team on the foundation stone of what the former Ireland international Jason McAteer describes as "a solid back seven with the two defensive midfielders dropping deep", he drills his players to avoid the concession of chances. Attacking can sometimes be reduced to the winning and conversion of corners and free kicks.

His team selections can be as predictable as his tactics. In Poznan, Ireland were the first team to line up in shirt numbers 1 to 11 in a Euro or World Cup since England in 2004. Trapattoni had told the media what his starting XI would be an entire week before kick-off.

Such consistency of method mitigates against any thought of adopting the three-man central defence with which Italy both stifled Spain and opened up scoring opportunities against them in Group C's opening game. Ireland would accept the same 1-1 outcome, but will pursue it in their own established way, considering no more than the addition of a third midfielder. "I think Italy played very well," says Tardelli. "But I think the system Spain put on the pitch for was very bad for Spain and very good for Italy. Because without strikers, it allowed Italy to play."

Ireland's goalkeeper summarises Plan Eire. "We can hurt Spain, hopefully," says Shay Given. "We won't be trying to get everybody behind the ball, we'll try and cause them some problems as well. One of the biggest things will probably be set pieces. They're renowned for maybe not being the biggest team in the competition and we've got some big players in our team, so if we get some of the right deliveries in there we've got the players who can get on to balls in the box."

If it works, the Irish can party with pride. It's the quality that Tardelli reaches for when asked what makes him believe.

"The players," he says. "The players. Their spirit. The mood of the players. They know it's the last chance."

 

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