Plenty of Irish sweat against Croatia but Spain game looks likely to end in tears

 

The Municipal Stadium

It was tough, and the men in green seldom got the rub of it, but Ireland looked their age last night.

The 36-year-old Shay Given was unlucky enough to score one of those ricochet own-goals that should never be recorded against a goalkeeper's name, while Robbie Keane was usually isolated alongside Kevin Doyle, the latter becoming one of those sacrificed by Giovanni Trappatoni in the reshaping of the attack after Croatia's third goal.

The other man substituted was Aiden McGeady and that may prove more significant. For in a team in which everyone has to defend, even if they are forwards, he is hardly archetypal.

McGeady was quite clearly built to create, not fight, and Ireland's supporters frequently argue that his contribution fails to justify the status of an exception to his team-mates.

Those unconvinced by the Spartak Moscow winger, signed from Celtic for £9.5m two years ago, would certainly have preferred to see James McClean, whose fast, direct running and early delivery of the ball to Sunderland's strikers made him something of a Premier League sensation in the season just finished, start the opening match of Ireland's tournament.

McClean also appears to have energy to burn – he tracks back almost as if his life depends on it. But Trappatoni has been around long enough – a lot more than long enough – to know that football is about an abundance of things, one of the most significant of which, not least to an underdog brought up in the British tradition, is the chance to score from set pieces.

Hence McGeady's key role in the brief revival. That he can whip a mean free-kick became evident as the Irish chased equality and his inswinging ball found Sean St Ledger, whose subtle wrestling skills left Vedran Corluka stranded and the referee unmoved. If only Ireland had been able to keep the scores level to the interval.

But this time Bjorn Kuipers interpreted the law to Croatia's delight and deemed Nikica Jelavic onside as Given was beaten a second time.

Naturally, Irish players complained, but this scarcely bore entry next to Thierry Henry's handball in the list of decisions awarded to supposedly bigger countries; it is hard, in any case, to see how Croatia would fit into that pattern.

There was a more convincing appeal when the lumbering Gordon Schildenfeld was tricked by Keane's nimble turn inside the penalty area, which did not entice the referee to award a spot-kick.

But the better, sharper side won and now Ireland have to work out a plan at least to frustrate Spain in Gdansk. Are there enough days to replenish energy sapped by a lot of chasing? And is it too much to expect the relative cool of last night? More likely Trappatoni's men will face a night of sweat and possibly tears.

The dream is that their veteran manager will face the team of his homeland in the final group match with something positive to play for. But this was always going to be a sort of cup final for Ireland and Croatia and the Irish lost.

If the worst comes to the worst, senior figures will have career decisions to make and neither Keane nor Given would find them easy to give up.

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