Trap may reshuffle pack for first test
0 Jun, Euro 2012 (Group C): Republic of Ireland v Croatia (Poznan, 7.45 UK)
After Giovanni Trapattoni had listened to his players about being tired, and duly gave them the day off on Thursday, a revitalised Irish team is looking forward to the game of their lives in Poznan tomorrow.
Ireland may not have a massive squad of world-class stars to choose from against a much more worldly wise Croatia team but, like all great Irish sides of the past, they have one thing that many cannot match – and that’s great heart and spirit.
The “Boys in Green” still possess a squad that’s mostly made up of Championship players but, crucially, they have big-game Premier League stars in vital positions. In Shay Given, they have one of the best shot-stoppers in the Premier. With defenders Richard Dunne and John O’Shea, they have two whole-hearted players who get better with age in positioning, timing and, of course, experience.
But it’s up front that Ireland have two game-changers – the evergreen Robbie Keane and Damien Duff – and they will need to be on their mettle if Ireland are going to get the win against Croatia.
Much has been said about last Monday’s match with Hungary in Budapest, where Ireland were somewhat lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw. On another day, against another team, they could have been hammered. We all know that Trap knows best and his 4-4-2 system has served him well. Even so, for this game against Croatia, I would play 4-5-1 to match them formation-wise.
And for this, I would leave Kevin Doyle on the bench and start with “Mr Hollywood” – aka Robbie Keane – up front on his own. I would bring Darren Gibson into midfield to help Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews and Duff and give a big-game debut to James McClean, who can get forward and support Keane when required.
The rest of the side picks itself – barring injuries – with Given, Sean St Ledger, Stephen Ward, O’Shea and Dunne starring in defence. Ireland don’t score many goals but nor do they concede many, either, and I feel this game will hinge on whoever scores first.
Croatia have star performers in all positions, led by the sometimes elusive and sometimes brilliant Luka Modric. If they play well, he does; if they tail off, he’s to blame. That’s the price you pay for being “Mr Croatia”. Everton’s Nikica Jelavic is vying for a starting spot with Eduardo and Nikola Kalinic and they have plenty of back-up in midfield with Darijo Srna, Ivan Rakitic, Niko Kranjcar and Ivan Perisic, all players who like to get forward.
In defence, Croatia are not the best in the world going backwards and they can be breached. Vedran Corluka, the Spurs defender, had been hampered by hamstring problems this week but has been passed fit. And 94-cap defender Josip Simunic is also a certain starter as is veteran goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa. They will be joined by young left back Ivan Strinic and central giant Gordon Schildenfeld, the Eintracht Frankfurt centre-half.
I see this match being like a chess match; he who blinks first will take the spoils. My heart says Ireland to steal it, my head says a draw. Only time will tell if the head or the heart should have total control in games of this magnitude.
Prediction: Republic of Ireland 1, Croatia 1
Also in Group C: Spain v Italy (Gdansk, 5pm)
The defending champions open their campaign against perennial spoilers Italy. With the Italians’ build-up to Euro 2012 being overshadowed by match-fixing events back home, it will be a welcome relief for them to finally focus on playing football. Two of Manchester City’s stars should have a big say in the winners of this one, with “Mr Unpredictable”, Mario Balotelli, expected to start up front for Italy and midfield maestro David Silva expected to do the same for Spain.
In a match that may mirror the Ireland v Croatia game, it’s a case of brawn v brain. I see Spain just edging it and, with all the stars that they have available, they should win by the odd goal.
Prediction: Spain 2, Italy 1