As the Republic of Ireland awaited the Euro 2012 draw, there is no doubt that the green nation were looking on with crossed fingers that they would be able to avoid the big guns.
The luck of the Irish had clearly abandoned the country that day however, as the past two World Cup winners Spain and Italy were drawn alongside Croatia to battle it out with Ireland for a place in the knock-out stages of the tournament. Quite the challenge for Trapattoni’s men then, and it seems they will need more than a four leaf clover to find their way through a “group of death” that has seen them earmarked as the bookmakers’ least likely tournament victor at 100/1.
Where there is a will though, there is always a way, and it seems it will be in the strength of certain individual’s performances that the country must rely on if they are to beat the world’s best.
Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan will be responsible for the distribution of the ball and controlling the game, and if the duo have a good day the quality and quantity of Ireland’s possession is sure to be vastly increased. Andrews has vastly improved his reputation since joining West Brom, after acting as somewhat of a dud at Blackburn. Despite regularly appearing for Ireland whilst at Ewood Park, with the confidence of club form now on his side the midfielder will hope to establish himself as top class international player.
Whelan meanwhile put in some splendid performances in the qualifying for Euro 2012, and the Stoke man will be vital in making sure his side are not overrun by the powerful opposition.
Whilst Whelan and Andrews will be in charge of controlling the midfield, if “Trap” takes the risk to play Sunderland star James McClean we will be seeing a young talent with unlimited potential take on his biggest challenge yet. After James McCarthy had to tragically pull out due to family purposes, McClean’s role will be a vastle important one in the Irish team, but despite having just one inernational cap to his name the Irishman is certainly not just there to make up the numbers.
After joining Sunderland from Derry City, McClean has impressed fans and pundits alike with his skills, strength and shooting following his 1 January debut. With Trapattoni attracting regular criticism during his reign for setting up too defensively, if he does choose to introduce McClean then the man who previously played for the Northern Irish under-21’s is capable of giving the Republic a dangerously tricky threat which is essential in any successful footballing campaign.
After demonstrating his prowess in arguably the best league in the world, there is no reason why McClean can’t translate this into a glowing international career. Young minds must always play alongside a veteran’s touch however, and the 23 man Ireland squad shows no lack of experienced names from which big things will be expected this June.
Robbie Keane is of course going to be in the limelight as the man who should be netting the goals in green. Despite not playing in one of the world’s top leagues anymore, Keane still plays at a high level in a competitive MLS league, and the striker could certainly still slot into many Premier League sides. Ireland’s captain fantastic has been through it all in his nation’s colours, and there is every chance he will be scoring more important goals in what is likely to be his last European Championships.
Keane will likely be deployed alongside either Wolves man Kevin Doyle, who has picked up his game as the English season came to a close, or West Brom’s Shayne Long, a striker who has shown flashes of brilliance through pace and skill this year at the Hawthorns.
The defence will also have to be on top form if Ireland are to launch a successful campaign. This element was one of the stronger points in the side’s qualifying campaign, as they recorded five cleans sheets and conceded just one goal away from home during the group stage.
Talismanic goalkeeper Shay Given will play a crucial part in denying the efforts of Spain and Italy, and Richard Dunne will also need to be on top of his game to keep out the world’s best. After returning from injury to help maintain Aston Villa’s Premier League status, Dunne is on good form and will provide a physical presence in the team’s back line.
Although the likes of St. Ledger and Stephen Ward are not big names in the English leagues, the Irish defence has formed a strong unit under Trapattoni that is very difficult to break down. Despite the fact John O’Shea may miss out due to injury, as recently rumoured, Stephen Kelly will be waiting to step in if required, and the Fulham man is a solid replacement.
Of course, the task is a monumentally uphill one for Ireland. With the Spanish side seeming unbeatable since winning the last European Championships, the men in red are favourites to claim the trophy once more, and ties with Croatia and Italy will see Ireland also playing underdogs.
Nevertheless, history is on Ireland’s side, as it reads that the nation have advanced from the group stages of every major championships they have qualified for with the exception of Euro ’88.
The country must simply hope their individual talents can shine on the big stage and that the country gets the luck it is globally believed ito receive. If all this goes as planned, then just maybe Trapattoni’s side will be able to cause some upsets and send a few shining sparks into the eyes of the Irish.