The loss to Croatia on Sunday has left the Republic of Ireland with the unenviable task of coping with the challenge of the team rated at this time the best in World football if they are to extend their interest in EURO 2012.
Spain have not only shown they are the best team by winning the EURO 2008 and the World Cup 2010 championships, they have done so by playing a distinctive and attractive style of football that is universally popular.
Most of the players who have lifted Spain to the top rank pursue their careers at Barcelona. Their cultivation of the style has led to four years of unprecedented success at club level and the emergence of a unique flow of talented young players who are highly skilled and technically advanced.
The individual ability of the players ensures the focus is on control of the football in all situations leading to a predictable and effective pattern of play. That is reflected in the extraordinary statistical reports emerging from their games, reports that detail command of the football for upwards of 60%, 65% and even 70% of the time.
This then is the task facing Ireland â€“ they must remain extraordinarily patient in the face of a team that will pass and pass and pass the ball until the leather cover is worn thin. Spain, unlike most teams, do not feel any pressure to launch the ball into the opposition penalty area at every opportunity.
Giovanni Trapattoni has clearly put the emphasis upon developing an efficient and highly disciplined defensive pattern of play in his time with Ireland. That effectiveness caused Ireland to go into this final tournament unbeaten in 14 matches and without having conceded a goal in eleven of them.
The loss to Croatia shattered that proud boast. The loss of three goals was a heavy blow but, perhaps, not as damning as initially thought. A further analysis after a second viewing of the match on DVD confirmed the belief that Ireland were victims of an extraordinary run of bad luck.
The first goal, for example, was clearly a freak. Goalkeeper Shay Given was caught unsighted behind two Irish defenders and was moving to his right when Mandzukic got in his header. The Croatia striker had slipped just before the ball reached him and he was still crouched when he made contact and this made it more difficult for Given to see what was happening.
The second goal, quite clearly, should have been disallowed. Stephen Ward was illegally impeded as he attempted to volley the ball clear, his foot hooked by an opponent in the manner of a hurler being hooked from behind.
As well, the fact that Jelavic was blatantly offside initially confirmed the belief that the offside rule in its current form is ridiculous. How can you not be interfering with the goalkeeper if you are on the edge of the six yards box ?
There were encouragements from the game from an Irish point of view. When has a midfield player got into a striking position more often than Keith Andrews did in this match ? He was doing so from kick-off.
Kevin Doyle won a lot of possession in the opening half-hour and Ireland, as always, continued to battle bravely even if the feeling that this was not to be their day must have entered their consciousness at some point.
The appalling decision not to award Robbie Keane a penalty when he had his legs cynically kicked from under him from behind in the 63rd minute was surely the most disheartening moment of all. Much has been made of the fact that a Croatia player was on the ground seeking attention at the time but that should have been irrelevant.
It was significant that when Croatia made a substitution eight minutes later it was the other centre-forward, Jelavic, who was withdrawn and not the player who was seeking attention at the time. The referee had no justification for ignoring Schildenfeld's kick on Keane.
Croatia deserve credit for their performance. They identified Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady as danger men and countered them successfully. They disrupted Ireland's usual dominance in defence by challenging Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger through two effective centre-forwards in Jelavic and Mandzukic. Luka Modric ruled midfield.
Ireland clearly place an emphasis upon maintaining their defensive formation with two lines of four players defending from the edge of the penalty area. Modric showed just how a good passer of the ball can trouble this set-up when he has time to pick his passes. One wonders whether Ireland would have fared better had a player been detailed to man-mark him ?
The problem for Ireland today is that Spain possess several players with Modric's skill on the ball and his range of passing. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Fabregas are all pass-masters and Trapattoni's delay in naming his team suggests he is considering bolstering Ireland's midfield by replacing one of the attacking players, even if Spain are almost certain to go with a centre-forward in place of one of their midfielders today.
Ireland face a huge challenge, probably the biggest one they will ever have to cope with and it is obvious they will have to reach a peak of form if they are to survive.
Ireland play Spain in Gdansk and the kick-off is at 7.45 pm. The match will be broadcast live on RTE Radio and on television on RTE 2 and UTV.
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