Italian ambition delivers Croker spectacle


Killian Woods was in Croke Park as two Italian coaching heavyweights gave a night to remember

On the eve of Ireland’s final World Cup qualifier against Montenegro, there is a disappointment throughout the Irish camp that the fixture lacks the importance it seemed likely to have after 87 minutes last Saturday evening.

ITALY VS IRELANDAfter scoring late against Italy, Giovanni Trapattoni’s team looked to have added a new twist to the penultimate round of fixtures in Group Eight. Though Italy only needed one point to assure passage to South Africa next summer, the world champions displayed intentions of taking all three, showing real attacking flair throughout the game.

Italy’s ambition to play for all three points, matching the more desperate need of their hosts, made for a fantastic spectacle. Ireland’s overall performance could be regarded as their finest since the scoreless draw in France during the last World Cup Qualifying cycle. However, as we bask in the excitement of the result and overall experience, it is disheartening to contemplate waiting another five years for a similar display from the Boys in Green.

It is frustrating to think that this impressive result changes nothing about the path Ireland must inevitably take to South Africa. With the assurance of a play-off berth comes a two-legged tie against runners-up from other qualifying groups.

Potential opponents for the play-off include some of football’s bigger nations, due to FIFA’s late decision to seed the draw – Portugal, Russia and Croatia are among the possible opponents. While the role of underdogs bodes well with Irish mindsets, Shay Given was disappointed about the decision of FIFA to essentially handicap “smaller” nations in the play-off draw.

Describing the situation as a “carve-up for the big nations”, Given told The University Observer about his views on Sepp Blatter’s decision. “I don’t know how they have got away with it… if from day one it’s clear, then it’s clear; but now they change it because some of the bigger nations are struggling.”

It would be naïve of Ireland, however, to bemoan such scheming tactics when at stages of the qualifying campaign, Ireland could be perceived to have shot themselves in the foot.

Trapattoni’s cautious tactical approach to the Bulgarian fixtures and the very winnable tie in Montenegro are a stark contrast to the must-win attitude embodied by the Irish team on Saturday. If performances of a similar calibre to that displayed against Italy could have been produced in these matches, Ireland would have undoubtedly come out on top.

Ireland’s improvements against Italy were based on added flair and better organisation at the set piece, though it would be wrong to consider this new system as a successful structure for the Irish team when facing stronger opposition in the future.

Without the ball, the Irish midfield became a flat and compact unit, having to compete for every 50-50 ball. Their failure to track Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo depicted how straightforward and unadaptable the system was, as Pirlo sat between the central midfielders and defence with yards of space.

Without dwelling on the negative aspects, it was rewarding to see Trapattoni stay true to his word and attack Italy as he had promised the media on Wednesday. It was also a good sign that after sixteen games in charge, the Italian has offered untested players like Lawrence, McGeady and St Ledger the chances to assert themselves on the international stage, while still building a new Irish midfield partnership of Andrews and Whelan.

Trapattoni’s ability to blood younger players has been one of the most positive aspects of his tenure so far. Speaking of Lawrence and his increasing importance in the squad, Trapattoni told the press that the Stoke midfielder “has a good personality; when we saw him, we thought about this situation. He has the mentality for the big occasion, he is confident with the ball.” He added, “We have decided how the team is going to play; we need to look for players who play our way.”

It has taken Trapattoni some time to finally mould a team in his image – but now that he has, some tactical tweaking can offer more performances like that offered against Italy and maybe, just maybe we’ll meet them again in South Africa.