Ireland vs. Croatia: Biggest X-Factors for Irish to Pull Upset

Timothy RappFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2012

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 09:  Robbie Keane of Republic of Ireland warms up during an Republic of Ireland training session prior to tomorrows UEFA EURO 2012 Group C match against Croatia at Municipal Stadium on June 9, 2012 in Poznan, Poland.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Ireland may not be one of the tournament favorites—frankly, most people would be surprised if they advanced to the quarterfinals in the tough Group C—but the Irish squad is not to be taken lightly, either.

They are unbeaten in 14 straight games

Robbie Keane

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 09:  In this handout image provided by UEFA, Robbie Keane and Giovanni Trapattoni of Republic of Ireland talk to the press during a UEFA EURO 2012 press conference ahead of the UEFA EURO 2012 Group C match between Republic of Republi
Handout/Getty Images

With 53 goals in 116 caps for Ireland, the success of this Irish team begins and ends with the performance of striker Keane.

The Irish are a gritty, stout defensive team, happy to sink back and absorb the attack. With that mentality, they'll look to Keane on the counter-attack to find the back of the net.

Maintaining a solid defensive presence and chipping in a surprise goal or two could be the secret for the Irish to beat Croatia. And the one player on the pitch capable of chipping in a few goals is the savvy veteran, Robbie Keane.

James McClean

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 29:  James McClean of Republic of Ireland in action during the International Friendly match between  Republic of Ireland and Czech Republic at Aviva Stadium on February 29, 2012 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty I
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The Sunderland winger was one of the surprises of the Premier League season, scoring six goals and tallying four assists in 29 appearances for the club.

McClean is strong and brings solid pace coming up the wing. I would expect him to have his hand in most Irish counter-attacks. He's an excellent crosser, and a McClean-to-Keane connection for a vital goal would not be surprising in the least.

Keep an eye on the 23-year-old during this match—if he is a major factor, the Irish will make life difficult for Croatia.

Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  Robinho (L) of Brazil contests with Glenn Whelan of Ireland during the International Friendly match between Republic of Ireland and Brazil played at Emirates Stadium on March 2, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo by Hamish Blair
Hamish Blair/Getty Images

The two central midfielders will have a tough task against Croatia: slowing down the keystone of the Croatian attack, central midfielder Luka Modric.

Both are familiar with Modric, having done battle with the Tottenham playmaker in the Premier League, Whelan at Stoke City and Andrews at West Bromwich Albion.

They will be the key in Ireland's strong defensive strategy. If they can bottle up Modric and force other Croatian players to fuel the attack, they'll have done their jobs and given Ireland a major advantage. But if Modric is given space and time to clinically play passes to his teammates, the Croatian attack will eventually find the back of the net, and Ireland will lose this match.

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