Republic of Ireland vs. Croatia: 5 Key Matchups in Euro 2012 Opener
The boys (in green) are back in town, the boys (in green) are back in toooooowown...
After a 24-year absence, the Republic of Ireland is back in the European finals. The last time the Boys In Green danced with Europe's finest was 1988.
Just to give you an idea for how long ago that really was, in the same summer the Democratic National Convention nominated Michael Dukakis as its nominee, Microsoft released Windows 2.1 and the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Freakin' Union.
That said, Croatia is no lightweight. They're a top-10 team in the world with an incredible goalkeeper in Stipe Pletikosa, an almost mechanically efficient midfield captained by Tottenham Hotspur Luka Modric and one of the most experienced groups of forwards in the world.
It's not going to be easy for Ireland to get a good result against The Blazers but if there's an opponent where they're going to scratch out a win, it'll be against these guys.
How will they do it? By winning individual matchups; the following are the most important in their Euro 2012 opener Sunday.
Richard Dunne vs. Nikica Jelavić
All others aside, this is the matchup that will decide whether the Boys In Green walk away with points or come up empty against Croatia.
Richard Dunne isn't just the best centre-back for the Republic of Ireland; he's one of the best centre-backs in the world and a big reason why his squad hasn't dropped a meaningful match since losing 3-2 to Russia in October of 2010.
In Euro 2012 qualification, Dunne captained a back line that gave up just seven goals in 10 matches, with five clean sheets mixed in for good measure.
However, for every measure of quality Dunne brings to Ireland's defense, Jelavić does the same for Croatia's attack. The Croatian striker has flourished in his recent move to Everton, finding the back of the net nine times in just 13 appearances.
Dunne's going to have his hands full with Croatia, even if veteran forward Ivica Olić withdrew because of injuries. Jelavić will prove to be, at best, an exhaustive warmup to the centre-back's next two opponents—Italy and Spain.
Stephen Ward vs. Darijo Srna
The most versatile player on Ireland's squad was slotted at left-back for the side's most recent friendly against Hungary and manager Giovanni Trapattoni said that the starting lineup in that match would be the same one that would face Croatia.
That said, I have to assume that the 26-year-old Ward will be tasked with defending opposing right winger, and Croatian captain Darijo Srna.
Srna has Ward beat on experience (Srna has 90 appearances to Ward's 12) but Ward has centre-back Sean St. Ledger, a player as quick as he is powerful, to back him up.
Glenn Whelan vs. Luka Modric
If you know anything about football, you know that Luka Modric is one of the best players in the world. Not one of the best midfielders, not one of the best for Croatia—one of the best players in the world.
It may not be within Croatia's tactics for Modric to play as far up as he does with current club Tottenham, but even if he's not attacking, he's a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the pitch, captaining his midfield like any good field general.
To put it lightly, Republic of Ireland midfielder Glenn Whelan is going to have his work cut out for him.
Even powerhouses like Italy and Spain whom the Boys In Green will face next week don't have midfields like Croatia. If Ireland has any hopes of retaining possession for at least 40 percent of the match (because, trust me, it won't be 50-50) then it's going to rest on the shoulders of how well Whelan can mark up on the gifted Modric.
Kevin Doyle vs. Verdan Corluka
Because of fitness and injury concerns to Croatia's defense, there's talk of moving Verdan Corluka, a gifted midfielder for Tottenham, to centre-back.
If that happens, watch for Republic of Ireland's forwards to have a field day, especially Kevin Doyle.
Robbie Keane will certainly be marked up by Croatia's best defender Josip Šimunić. If Croatia's right-back (whoever that may be) leaves Doyle in some favorable situations with a player like Corluka who, though he may be gifted, will be playing out of position on defense.
Robbie Keane vs. Josip Šimunić
Unless they're gunning for a 0-0 draw, the Republic of Ireland is going to need to score and if history has taught us anything, it's that the Boys In Green attack goes through one man: Robbie Keane.
Keane's the man when it comes to Ireland getting on the board. Whether it's a lucky hop that the veteran forward can find a way to knock in goal or a bumbling pass to a wide-open teammate, Keane will be the maestro to Ireland's scoring ways.
It'll be easier said then done, what with Croatia's most veteran player, Josip Šimunić, playing centre-back. Šimunić and Keane are going to do everything in their power to make life hell for the other.
Whoever wins this match up will decide who gets on the board first.
Like I said before, a 0-0 draw might be what Ireland is hoping for, what with manager Giovanni Trapattoni's conservative tactics through Euro 2012 qualification.
I think, however, that this is the side's best chance at a victory in the group stage and as such, the Boys In Green will be gunning for a quick (even lucky) strike and hold fast to a 1-0 lead and chance for three points.