Giovanni Trapattoni backs Irish 'heart' to pull off shock of the tournament against Spain
Giovanni Trapattoni came out smiling at the PGE Arena yesterday. As did Robbie Keane.But, when you put Ireland's task today into a certain context, it's difficult not to wonder whether that was just the serenity derived from a situation where things really cannot get any worse.
On Sunday, after all, they lost the most winnable game in their Euro 2012 group. Today, Ireland play what is probably the most difficult game in their entire history. If they don't get a result, they're out.
Worse, in the last 11 years, Ireland have only beaten one team that were ranked above them in a competitive game. That was Slovakia at home in 2007, let alone the world champions and one of the greatest teams of all time.
What's more, Spain excel in exactly the kind of football that has given Trapattoni's team most of its problems: quick interchanges and exchanges through the centre.
The manager accepted that with a certain amount of understatement. "For this game, our objective is to be offensive, to try and win the game but, at the same time, we need also to find a way to help the midfield because sometimes it has suffered in this situation.
"It will be very important not to give them space, particularly in midfield. I've been thinking about the best solution for us."
But here's the thing. The best solution might already be there – or, at least, in place. Because, as much as Spain have perfected the method that generally causes Ireland such misery, the Irish are actually one of the few teams that regularly practice the only repeatedly proven way to beat Spain.
Since Jose Mourinho's Internazionale set the template against the Barcelona style in the 2009-10 Champions League semi-final, opposition teams have had most joy against Spain by sitting very, very deep, congesting all space around the box and simply looking to maximise rare opportunities. That, essentially, describes Trapattoni's Ireland. At least, then, there is hope.
So there was perhaps a little more to the knowing smiles. For one, although Trapattoni refused to name his first XI – explaining he "can't always give the opponent the advantage" – Keane effectively let slip he will play as a lone front man.
"We obviously spoke before so we know what's going on. If I do play as a lone striker, it's something different but something I enjoy too."
The expectation is that, in order to aid the midfield but not completely compromise the 4-4-2 formation Ireland have become so accustomed to, the industrious Jon Walters will replace Kevin Doyle and shuttle between midfield and Keane.
As for Spain, Trapattoni predicted they would drop Cesc Fabregas and introduce one of Fernando Torres or Fernando Llorente up front – something Vicente del Bosque refused to discuss other than calling it "an opinion".
Xabi Alonso, meanwhile, accepted the prospect of a frustrating afternoon."If they do play with two banks of four, it will be tough to find space. We will have to be patient. We are working on shooting from long distance. The first goal is key."
As a rallying call, Trapattoni ran through them again."I repeat what I sometimes say. I am proud to be the manager of the Irish players, because the Irish players have heart. We play our football. Spain is more creative but football is not only creative. It is balance and strength, with attitude. There is also luck.
"I think, also, we can win. Why not?"
Despite the exact scale of the task, that really explains the smiles.
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