With ten minutes left before Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca would put Ireland out of their misery, Giovanni Trapattoni decided to use his final substitution of a long and painful night at the Gdansk Arena.
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Paul Green was given the thankless task of attempting to minimise any more damage that the tiki-taka Spanish football was inflicting. A whole hearted and committed player, this was his first competitive outing for Ireland in 20 months. Green is currently unattached after an injury-interrupted season in the Championship with Derby County and his club career highlight is a League One play-off victory for Doncaster Rovers in 2008.
On the other hand, Vicente del Bosque made a tactical change just minutes before Green’s arrival, with goalscorer Fernando Torres being denied the opportunity of taking home the match ball with Cesc Fabregas replacing the rejuvinated striker. The £30 million pound Barcelona player, named in the Euro 2008 Team of the Tournament, and the man who created Iniesta’s winning goal in the World Cup Final two years previously in South Africa, immediately set about pushing his cause for a starting berth in this star studded side. The former Arsenal captain was alert to a quick corner, rushing onto the ball at pace. His first touch guided him past Green, and swept the ball home past a hapless Shay Given. The ball ended in the net and Green ended up on the ground. The contrast in substitutions was one of many disparities evident throughout the 90 minutes.
Ireland will not be the last team to outclassed by this vintage Spanish side, though it will be the manner of our heaviest defeat in 41 years that will make it a bitter pill to swallow. Robbie Keane was quoted during the week as to never in his career having taken to the pitch beaten before a game begins. Admirable words of defiance, but whether Trapattoni felt we had a genuine chance of getting any result is questionable. Immediately after the match, Glenn Whelan conceded that containing their midfield was an almost impossible task as himself and Andrews were paired against Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets. “It’s hard when you are playing two in there and they’ve got three, four and five”, admitted the Stoke man, in possibly the understatement of the tournament.
Simon Cox was given his chance from the off for only the second time in a competitive match, and found the going much more difficult than in Armenia during the qualifying campaign. In another unusual move by the manager, Trapattoni decided to use Cox as a wide midfielder despite having little experience of this role. His shot after 90 seconds was about as threatening as it got for Casillas. The decision to play Robbie Keane as a lone striker proved fruitless as he was starved of possession, and picked up a yellow for a wreckless tackle borne out of frustration. Keane has never played as a lone striker in his previous 118 appearances for the national side, and his lack of physical presence is a major reason why he has rarely fulfilled this role throughout his club career. Trapattoni was hedging his bets.
Final match statistics indicated the victors enjoyed 66% possession, and set a new record in a European Championship with 860 completed passes. Ireland on the other hand simply didn’t enjoy having the ball, and were pressurised on the ball throughout resulting in regular concession of possession. One moment in the second half summed up the Spanish performance perfectly. Keane, on a rare foray in the opposition half, found himself by the corner flag, desperately seeking a colleague to lay the ball off to. Four Spaniards converged, cleanly dispossessing the frontman, and with eight swift passes in the space of ten seconds, Iniesta won a free-kick on the edge of the Irish box. Bill Shankly’s belief that football is a simple game complicated by idiots never seemed to carry more weight.
James McClean played for the final quarter of an hour, despite indications from Trapattoni that he would not feature in the tournament. The team selection for Mondays clash with the Azzurri will throw up dilemas for the manager. Does he throw caution to the wind by bringing in McClean, Long and Gibson, players who are likely to be more involved in the World Cup qualifying campaign? The innate conservatism shown throughout his tenure suggests that sweeping changes are highly unlikely, and there is a case to be made that his options are limited with the personnel available. Trap has never been slow to highlight the fact we lack creative players and therefore rely on graft and organisation. The fact that the latter has deserted us in Poland means that our gameplan is threadbare, and offers very little offensively against stronger opposition.
A change in personnel is one issue, but an alteration in tactics would be a monumnetal shift for the 73 year old Italian. As Liam Brady pointed out last night, bringing in fresh faces with the same approcah will change very little. To change now would serve as an admission that the current system is flawed against stronger opponents. However there is precedence, in Paris three years ago the team took the game to France from the first whistle and played with an abandonment and freedom not seen before, or since. To continue in the same vein as the opening two matches will run the risk of turning supporters goodwill and hope into dismay and concern unless a positive result is achieved. Trapattoni has demonstrated conviction and self-belief in all challenges he has faced since taking on the job over four years ago, but now he faces one of his biggest dilemas; whether to stick or twist.