When he was announcing his squad for the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, the wily Giovanni Trapattoni stressed that while his team lacked the individual brilliance of world-class players such as Argentina's Lionel Messi, they nonetheless possessed a strong squad, with discipline, organisation and balance. Once again, Trapattoni is right. However, the question remains: Can they cause an upset in the tournament?
In the course of qualification, Trapattoni's tactical approach frustrated fans. He was steadfast in his adherence to "the system" (a rigid 4-4-2 formation), which saw the Irish team appear shackled on the pitch with each player confined to his respective role. Players such as Andy Reid, Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan, whom the public believed might add a creative dimension to the team, were seemingly shunned. They are good players, conceded Trapattoni, but not quite good enough for him to remodel his system.
Perhaps the main defence of Trapattoni's approach is that he has made Ireland difficult to beat; in 10 competitive games in the qualifying for Euro 2012, for example, Ireland lost just one game. More pertinently, proponents of Trapattoni's system raise the fact that the decorated coach has, after all, led Ireland to their first major tournament in 10 years—and their first European Championships since 1988.
Nevertheless, despite this impressive feat, there are weaknesses in the system, which were painfully exposed in qualifying, and these may indeed prove costly. The most notable case comes from the game against Russia in Dublin, when Trapattoni's men conceded three goals without reply as the statuesque midfield struggled to respond to the fluid, technical style of play of the Russians. The Irish eventually pulled two goals back to lose 3-2, but the performance was telling.
With this in mind, consider Ireland's opponents in the tournament: Spain, Croatia, Italy.
Reigning world and European champions Spain have set the world alight with their breathtaking "tiki-taka" style of football. It is an enhanced version of the brand of football employed by the Russians and La Roja are sure to carve open the Irish midfield at will. Croatia are a similarly technical team, with the mercurial Luka Modrić pulling strings from midfield.
That said, Ireland can, perhaps, take solace from the shock victory of Switzerland over Spain in the 2010 World Cup. The Swiss team's stout defending and similar tactical approach to Ireland allowed them to run out with a 1-0 victory over the eventual tournament victors. However, it must be noted that snatching important goals against strong teams has proven to be an Achilles' heel of Trapattoni's team. The only realistic hope to get a goal will come through occasional counter-attacks and set pieces.
While Croatia manager Slaven Bilić has suggested that his team is superior to Trapattoni's, Ireland's other opponents, Italy, may look at the fixture with some trepidation. Cesare Prandelli has great respect for Giovanni Trapattoni and expressed concern regarding the prospect of facing the maestro. Interestingly, Ireland's recent record against the Azzurri is commendable; they are unbeaten in their last three encounters and actually defeated the Italians 2-0 in a friendly during the summer of 2011.
Giovanni Trapattoni is passionate. The experienced manager actually issued a rallying cry at the end of his squad announcement—urging his players recognise their limits, to work to improve and to believe in their ability during this tournament. Throughout his tenure, he has repeatedly mentioned Greece's unlikely victory in Euro 2004 to be taken as inspiration by his limited players.
They enter the tournament with the public giving them absolutely no chance, but no team will underestimate Trapattoni's troops.
Ryan Kelly is a football writer for goal.com Ireland, Sports News Ireland and You Boys In Green Fanzine. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryandelarge.
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