by Jack Howes
At every major tournament there is a surprise package that sneaks up on the rails on the blind side to achieve far more than expected. The surprise packages humiliate pundits, make original predictions look foolish and return home to crazed fans and a head of state wanting a photo with the team to increase his popularity with the electorate. Think of Uruguay reaching the World Cup semi-finals, Turkey having their bonkers run to the Euro 2008 semi-finals, Greece managing to win the European Championships in 2004 with a revolutionary 9-0-1 formation that relied on set-pieces, good defence and the ability to suck the life out of opposition and neutral fans (Dyson hoovers will probably be doing that in 50 years’ time) to bring home the Henri Delauney trophy.
So with the European Championships now just 11 days away I’m thinking of reasons why the biggest minnow of them all for the Euros, the mighty Republic of Ireland can do well. As a Plastic Paddy (I have an Irish granny which makes me more Irish than most of the 1994 World Cup squad) who’d like some light relief from Stewart Downing anonymity and Andy Carroll headers over the bar, I hope they surprise higher touted teams, like they famously did to Italy in the Giants Stadium in 1994.
Of course it is quite likely that Ireland will fall at the first hurdle. Bookmakers are rarely wrong and have been proven to be excellent predictors of sports events. The more predictions and opinions you get on a question, the more likely you are to get a correct answer. But betting stables are not infallible. Horses win the Grand National at 100/1, Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson at 42/1, Paul the Octopus had better powers of deduction than the BBC punditry team at the last World Cup. Ireland can defeat the odds.
At 80/1 they have the joint longest odds to win the Euros. They are in size and population one of the smallest sides in the tournament, haven’t qualified for a major tournament in 10 years and have a group of players largely assembled from mid-table Premiership sides. Not one of their players played in the Champions League this year. They also have a brutal draw, with Spain, Italy and Croatia in their group. The prospect of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews battling in central midfield against Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta et al isn’t one that raises Irish hopes of victory.
On paper they don’t have a prayer against the might of Italy and Spain and will struggle against the Croats. What they do have though is organisation, a solid defence and in Giovanni Trapattoni a veteran coach with experience, tactical nous and possibly the power of God on his side through his habit of sprinkling Holy Water over the touchline before matches.
Ireland are not an ambitious side. They line up in a 4-4-2 with the clichéd two banks of four and two strikers to feed off scraps. The style of football won’t dazzle onlookers – its’ fair to say Ireland won’t be playing Total Football. But defensively they’re very solid – in their last 22 games only 17 goals have been conceded and in 2011 they went eight consecutive games without conceding a goal.
Scoring goals won’t come easily, but in Robbie Keane they have a proven goalscorer with a superb record of 53 goals in 115 internationals. He and his partner up front (either Shane Long or Kevin Doyle) will hassle defenders not used to hairy arsed Irishmen harassing and pressurising opposition defenders hoping to force mistakes that will allow them to nick a goal.
Looking at their group they are the side with the most stability. Spain are still an exceptional side but in recent months have lost to England and drew with Costa Rica. With David Villa out of the tournament they’re struggling up front while Carlos Puyol will be a big miss, with Sergio Ramos forced to move to centre-back, a position where at times he looked vulnerable for Real Madrid. Looking at Spain’s loss to England in a friendly and Barcelona’s defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final, on both occasions the Spaniards were thwarted by teams who packed the defence, sat deep and made it hard for Spain/Barca to play through them. This is Ireland’s default style and they will embrace tackling Spain.
The other sides in the group have problems. Italy have a corruption scandal surrounding them that has forced starting left back Domenico Criscito to withdraw from the squad, which worked for them in 2006 but surely can’t be beneficial to preparations. Croatia have problems in defence with Josip Simunic out of form and creaking at the age of 34, while Niko Kovac’s retirement has forced Luka Modric to play further forward and not in his favoured deep lying midfield role dictating the play. They also struggled to find a goalscorer in qualification, Niko Krancjar with four goals from midfield their top scorer. Manager Slaven Bilic has already signed a contract to manage Lokomotiv Moscow after the tournament, and teams knowing their manager will soon be gone rarely do well.
Ireland have few injury troubles, are a stable and happy team with little pressure on them and know broadly what their tactics and team selections will be. Now they’re unlikely to win the tournament but don’t be surprised if they sneak a win and with some luck maybe even qualify for the quarter-finals.