It’s unlikely that Brian Cowen will have been called upon by Giovanni Trapattoni to help motivate the Irish football team ahead of tonight’s ‘mission impossible’ in Paris.
An Taoiseach entered the realm of sports punditry with a YouTube opinion piece on the state of the footballing nation before last weekend’s World Cup play-off first leg. Sure why not do a Dunphy and Giles on it and get Mary Coughlan in on the act? And maybe Brian Lenihan, whose Garlic-munching skills would put the French to shame.
Perhaps if a deal to broadcast Les Bleus versus the Boys in Green (part deux) couldn’t be struck the Government trio might entertain the masses via a live web feed from the cabinet instead, with John O’Donoghue in the Bill O’Herlihy anchor role, now that he’s no longer on the international sporting circuit.
Enough of the (alleged) light entertainment and onto more serious matters: like what do we, or rather Trap and his team, do now?
Saturday’s performance was well-decent in terms of effort and commitment, but about as easy on the eye as a Trapattoni interview is on the ear. The Republic boss, as expected, was quick to declare his intention to go with more or less the same side for the return tie, and there’ll be no throwing caution to the wind at the Stade de France that’s for sure. He’ll be happy if the aggregate score is unchanged with 20 minutes to go, and to take a chance on engineering a training ground set piece. And who wouldn’t take that right now.
The atmosphere in Croke Park was fantastic, the majesty of the stadium suiting the visitors’ sense of self-importance; a far cry from ankle-high grass and general air of dilapidation that awaited teams in the old Lansdowne Road. The modern Croker isn’t ‘hell’ by any means. Indeed, it must be a pleasure to play in.
Yet, if we’re looking for signs of hope (and, let’s face it, we’re desperately seeking some) on those few occasions they were pressurised at the other end, Raymond Domenech’s/Thierry Henry’s supposedly temperamental troupe looked less than comfortable.
But there’s no denying that France have the better players. Going against the grain of Dunphy and Giles – who regarded Saturday’s second-half slippage as more to do with Ireland gearing down (most probably due to fatigue on a heavy pitch, and inevitably anxiety) than the opposition raising their game – Graeme Souness says Trapattoni is simply cutting his cloth to suit his measure, realising that Ireland possess an at-best-average group of footballers who are not going to outplay a team of France’s guile and mobility.
Outnumbered but resolute in his views, Souness observed there was and is no plan B with this Irish team. Trapattoni is basically hoping to defend deep and deny France (and every other team) clear-cut chances in the final third, while hoping that set-pieces will reap some reward, such as the deadballs that worked so spectacularly against Italy.
However, Kevin Doyle – a bizarre pick by Jim Beglin as man-of-the-match, especially considering that yet again he was taken off after 70 minutes – didn’t get the service to even win a free kick around the French box. Ditto Robbie Keane, who also worked hard for the cause, but predominantly outside the danger area.
The endless Andy Reid argument will raise its controversial head in earnest if Ireland don’t pull off an improbable result on Seineside. He clearly couldn’t care less about his critics, but Trapattoni’s stubborn and selfish refusal to even include Reid in his squad is nothing short of a petty personal vendetta dressed up as his addiction to the ‘system’. Still, it’s a moot point whether Reid would have made any discernable difference last weekend given that the manager’s modus operandi is all about keeping your shape, and your midfielders in retreat, thus negating whatever support they should ordinarily be giving the strikers. However, there’s a case for suggesting that his presence on the pitch at some point during the qualifying campaign could have turned one of those ultimately damaging draws into a priceless victory. (Not to mention that Stephen England eejit.)
That said, Ireland have rode their luck at times along the way towards destination South Africa (another tournament where we might have to content ourselves with enviously watching our neighbours, who, heaven forbid, are bound to justify their own hype sometime), though Trapattoni’s supposedly Jedward-esque good fortune ran out in Dublin the other evening.
While fortuitous in the extreme, Nicolas Anelka’s deflected winner was coming, mind, with Ireland coughing the ball up continuously for the previous 20 minutes. Having started fairly confidently, the Irish mindset seemed to shift into survival mode after the change of ends. Whereas in the first half they’d opted, pretty successfully, to at least try and pass their way out of trouble, in the second period Ireland gradually began giving the ball away almost every time they had it; hurried clearances putting themselves immediately on the back foot and feeding the French midfielders and full-backs with cheap possession on or in advance of the halfway line. In booting possession away indiscriminately, the chasm between the rest of the eleven and the front two exaggerated the ease with which France were able to press on.
Trapattoni patently doesn’t want his central midfielders to look to get on the ball, his distrust in their abilities to hold onto it translating into the low percentage output we’ve become accustomed to under the Italian. Their job is to close players down and they do that well. But as Souness predicted beforehand and affirmed afterwards, you can get in the faces of a technically-superior side, but it’s practically impossible to keep that intensity up for 90 minutes (though they were back at it after time was up, ensuring pride won’t be lacking tonight at least). Certainly the fact that France are so athletic made the task of containment doubly difficult.
Looking at the best case scenario, if they can keep France at bay (and an expectant home support could work against the favourites the longer the game goes on) Ireland will get a half-chance or two. They must make them count. And there will come a stage in the game when Ireland might as well launch it the length of the pitch, Packie Bonner-style, down on top of the opposition central defenders and look for a flick-on, a poxy break. Long balls, don’t forget, have led to most of the most memorable goals in Irish soccer history. Passing it to death isn’t the be all and end all, but you’ve got to somehow speculate to accumulate. I’d much prefer us to literally give it a lash than go out with a whimper.