HOW THEY GOT HERE
It wouldn’t really be a Republic of Ireland qualifying campaign without a trip to the playoffs. Thankfully there was no repeat of the heartache suffered against France in the qualifiers for the last World Cup as Estonia were easily dealt with 5-1 over the two legs.
Ireland finished second in a tricky group which also featured Russia, Armenia, Slovakia, Macedonia, and Andorra. They lost only once, at home to the Russians, but conceded just seven goals as Giovanni Trapattoni defensive mindedness came out on top as it has done many times in the past.
The campaign kicked off back in September 2010 with a 1-0 win away to Armenia thanks to a 76th minute strike from Keith Fahey and that was followed up with a comfortable 3-1 home win over group whipping boys Andorra.
The aforementioned defeat to Russia came next before a solid point away to Slovakia and two wins over the notoriously tricky Macedonia steadied the ship. A pair of 0-0 draws at home to Slovakia and away to Russia followed by second wins over Andorra and Armenia secured a playoff spot.
Skipper Robbie Keane helped himself to five goals, a third of Ireland’s overall tally, while the Aviva Stadium in Dublin enjoyed the group’s highest average attendance (40,915).
Admittedly, the playoff draw couldn’t have gone any better with Ireland paired with Estonia instead of Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Montenegro. Trap’s side travelled to Talinn for the first leg and put in a stunning performance to win 4-0. With the tie essentially done and dusted, the team’s played out a 1-1 draw in Dublin four days later meaning Ireland qualified for its first Euro's since 1988.
WHY THEY'LL WIN
Well they won’t win the whole thing but any progress beyond the group stage will be down to The Trap Factor.
The wily old Italian has been around the block a few times and, despite his negative brand of mind numbingly frustrating football, he’s a winner.
Trap got down to business on Monday, May 7 to announce the 23 man squad with James McCarthy’s absence for family reasons and the inclusion of James McClean the only real talking points.
He has for the most part stuck with the players who got Ireland to the Championships meaning this is a functional squad rather than a talented one.
It’s a tired cliché, but if you don’t concede you don’t lose games and Ireland’s defensive setup is probably the biggest contributing factor to their qualification. With Shay Given in goal behind a line of John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Sean St. Ledger and Stephen Ward, there is a solid unit at the back. Throw in ‘cloggers’ Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews and you have at least seven players who will defend doggedly throughout. Even wingers Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff (as well as squad members like Stephen Hunt) know they must put in a shift to get behind the ball when the opposition has it.
Robbie Keane is of course always likely to nick a goal and will be ably assisted by Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox, all of whom have different attributes to bring to the side.
The emergence of James McClean finally gives Ireland that ‘X-Factor’ and the 23 year old will be something of an unknown quantity for the three other teams in the group.
The moral within the squad is strong according to the players and, to date, there haven’t been any incidents similar to Saipan 2002 to put a cloud over preparations.
WHY THEY WON'T WIN
They’re not very good. Ireland’s technical ability pales in comparison to most of the other countries heading to the Championships and there is a chance that the team will be simply played off the park by Croatia, Spain and Italy.
If Ireland concede early in any of the games there aren’t enough players in the squad with the ability to break the opposition down. The middle of the park is devoid of any real creativity, while Trap’s naturally conservative outlook on the game stifles those who could unlock a defence.
Once a flying winger, Damien Duff is going down the Ryan Giggs road of becoming a conventional midfielder, while fellow starting eleven staples Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Richard Dunne are no spring chickens either.
WE'VE SEEN BEFORE
Robbie Keane, divider of opinions for over a decade. Is he really good or just a bit of a spoofer who knows how to score tap ins and penalties?
I’ve tried for years to like Robbie, I really have, but he just frustrates the hell out of me and I haven’t forgotten an away qualifier against Switzerland back in 2004 when his constant attempts at dummies and flicks amounted to absolutely nothing.
Having said that, his international goal scoring record is superb and there is absolutely no doubting his commitment to the cause since his debut against the Czech Republic in 1998.
At the time of writing, the Tallaght native has scored 53 goals in 116 appearances to put himself in the top ten of Europe’s all time international goal scorers. He is also the joint second highest goal scorer in European Championship qualifiers alongside Jan Koller and Raul on 18 goals, one behind Hakan Suker and Jon Dahl Tomasson.
At 32, Keane probably won’t be around for much longer and has taken up something of a tidy retirement package with LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, but his influence on the Irish national team is still massive. With Kevin Doyle having had a very poor season at Wolves and Shane Long in and out of West Brom’s first team, the reliance for goals will fall on the shoulders of Keane as it has done for most of his Ireland career.
It can only be James McClean can’t it? The young winger has made a huge impression since joining Sunderland from Derry City in August for just £350,000 and is more proof that, shock horror, there is some serious talent playing in the League of Ireland.
Of course, international recognition only comes with a magic plane ticket to the mainland (as the joke goes) and McClean has followed in the footsteps of Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Seamus Coleman and Keith Fahey amongst others by securing a call up having left home.
Not everyone is happy with McClean’s call up however with some Northern Ireland supporters voicing their disapproval at the Derry man’s decision to declare for the Republic having represented the North at underage level. McClean isn’t the first (Darron Gibson and Shane Duffy are just two other recent cases) and won’t be the last, but his obvious ability makes it a bitter pill to swallow.
HOW THEY WILL PLAY
Put it this way, it won’t be pretty. The full backs won’t be allowed past the half way line, the wingers will be conservative, and the centre of the park will be an advert for whatever the opposite to tiki taka is.
No disrespect to Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, whose commitment to the cause cannot be faulted, but they are extremely limited football players and don’t exactly inspire confidence heading into games against some of the world’s best.
Their primary function will be to shield the back four and form part of what will at times be a seven or eight man defence when the two wingers drop deep.
With Whelan and Andrews in midfield, it will be up to the two wingers, most likely Duff and McGeady, to create chances for Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle/Shane Long.