x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Euro 2012: Last chance for the industrious Irish

The Republic of Ireland have been described as technically the worst team at Euro 2012. That is unlikely to concern their veteran manager. His side are unbeaten in 14 games, conceding only three goals in that time.

Giovanni Trapattoni, centre, has instilled belief in his team members.
Giovanni Trapattoni, centre, has instilled belief in his team members.

In the Republic of Ireland, the most significant element of Giovanni Trapattoni's date of birth can seem the day and month: March 17 is St Patrick's Day, a celebration of all things Irish.

To the outside world, the year stands out more: 1939, meaning Trapattoni was a few months old when the Second World War began.

The most decorated manager in the history of Serie A is one of football's great survivors, a man whose career began in the 1950s and has been extended into the second decade of the 21st century.

Half a century ago, he was charged with man-marking Pele and, while much has changed in the intervening period, Trapattoni is again devoting himself to stopping greater talents. "I played many times against players who were big, big stars," the Italian said. "But I won one-on-one against them. That is a good stimulus."

Ireland face the underrated Croatians today before meeting tournament favourites Spain and another of European football's traditional superpowers, Trapattoni's native Italy.

The Irish have been described, perhaps harshly, as technically the worst team at Euro 2012. That is unlikely to concern their veteran manager. His side are unbeaten in 14 games, conceding only three goals in that time.

Trapattoni, 73, has found a method of prospering without the ball. His is a team built on solidity and set-pieces, a group with commitment and continuity.

While others prefer to be secretive about their selection, Trapattoni dropped the strongest of hints before Monday's 0-0 draw with Hungary that his side in Budapest would start Euro 2012. Both the players and the formula stay the same.

Ireland play 4-4-2 with the emphasis on industry. Kevin Doyle is a workaholic of a main striker, wingers Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff are charged with running all afternoon and central midfielders Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan are deputed to sit deep and shield the back four.

It is not merely that Ireland do not have a distributor to compare with the Croatian creator Luka Modric, let alone the Spanish pass masters they meet on Thursday: they are not configured to use such a player. In their style of play, they are underdogs.

It may seem a strange situation for Serie A's most decorated manager, winner of 10 league titles in four countries, seven of them in his homeland, but is one that Trapattoni is happy to accept.

Ireland, in their first European Championships for 24 years and returning to major tournaments after a 10-year absence, are outsiders.

There is a temptation to suggest that, after such a long wait, their hopes may be all but ended after 90 minutes. Given the daunting games ahead, whoever loses tonight's game could be effectively eliminated. Yet Trapattoni said: "We can dream. I do think we can get out of the first round."

It is worth remembering Ireland are strangers to defeat under him: in his four-year reign, they have been beaten only twice in competitive games, by France and Russia, and never on foreign soil.

Three meetings with Italy have produced two draws and a win. It is a formidable record, one made all the more admirable because of the comparatively limited resources at his disposal.

He speaks in broken English but Trapattoni has healed the wounds in Irish football, constructing a team greater than the sum of its parts.

Their indomitable spirit was summed up by Richard Dunne's display in Moscow last September, defensive heroics of bloodied brilliance securing a stalemate.

A non-playing member of the 2002 World Cup squad, the centre-back is finally getting his chance on a big stage. For Dunne and his fellow old-timers, the 122-cap goalkeeper Shay Given and the 53-goal record scorer Robbie Keane, this day has been a long time coming.

"It's probably the last chance for many players so we have to grasp it with both hands," said Keane, the captain.

And, while he has a contract until 2014, it may be the final hurrah for the wizened figure in the dugout, Giovanni Trapattoni.

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