Irish pluck to chasten Croats
The Irish critics of Giovanni Trapattoni’s dour style may disagree, but for the Italian there is only one way to skin a cat. Handed a squad of journeymen, in the kindest possible regard, in 2008 Trapattoni was tasked with leading them to a major tournament. He knew there was no place for freedom of expression or total football. This group would need rigidity and discipline.
But having battled through qualification, now arrives the most extreme test of his tactical approach – putting it up against the best Europe has to offer, starting with a clash against Croatia on Sunday night.
His would seem to be an outlook made for tournament football but there is little room for error, with this match carrying such significance for both. Occupying a group which also includes two European superpowers, this game in Poznan is almost win or bust. Which is exactly why we’re expecting the outcome to be somewhere in between.
The Irish must perform as more than the sum of their parts but the Croatians, boss Slaven Bilic admits, have to offer their stars the platform to impress. In a recent interview with the Guardian he said: “I simply try to give each of them a mandatory frame in which their lucidity will hopefully flourish.” It is not diametrically opposed to Trapattoni’s view in that the key men must star within certain bounds, but Bilic’s intentions are at odds to those of his opposite number.
In the same interview he added: “At Croatia, we have always tried to play and we always look better when our opponents play positive football. Because of the way we play, it's much easier for us when the game is a two-way street.”
Ominously, they didn’t fare well in a one-way street against Greece in qualifying, a nation whose approach Trapattoni has sought to emulate. Bilic’s men failed to score in 180 minutes against the Greeks, losing the away match 2-0 in what was essentially the group decider and playing out a goalless draw in Zagreb. The Uefa report of that stalemate included the following less-than-encouraging sentence: “On a frustrating night, Slaven Bilić's men dominated possession but struggled to break down a well-drilled defensive wall.”
In a qualifying match we’d be looking to back the bloody-mindedness of the Irish at 11/4 (Boylesports) but with so much at stake in the finals, Croatia are likely to throw forward the full weight of their talented strike force should their fallible defence concede. Even with an emotionally and physically flagging Luka Modric, Bilic can call on Everton’s in-form Nikica Jelavic, Mario Mandzukic of Wolfsburg and the occasionally unpredictable creative potential of Niko Kranjcar and Bundesliga winner Ivan Perisic.
So, it’s the draw at 11/5 that appeals. Indeed, a goalless affair is far from out of the question, which is how the nations’ friendly meeting ended in August 2011. And that may even become an enticing prospect as the match wares on, when the time comes to cut losses.
Read Henry Milward's preview of Group C's other clash on Sunday: Spain v Italy
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