As Ireland prepare to play Poland and the Ukraine in June, Stefan Bracken looks ahead to tomorrow’s warm-up game against the Czech Republic.
This is probably the most exciting of eras in Irish football. Ireland’s present success is only comparable to previous qualifications for major tournaments in ’88, ’90, ’94 and ’02. While all these events carried with them their own individual splendour, the difference under Trapattoni is that Ireland has the capacity to cause an upset against any team in Europe. As was shown in the many clean sheets of 2011 (which included eight in a row), Ireland have a well-organised and formidable defence, as well as some young, exciting attacking talent. The team’s biggest disadvantage is Trapattoni’s dislike for experimenting with these young players.
The Republic of Ireland’s first Euro 2012 warm-up game opponents are the Czech Republic, who Ireland plays tomorrow night in Lansdowne Road. The Aviva has already seen some very special moments, including most recently, a tense, necessary win over Armenia to secure second place in Group B, as well as entertaining the party atmosphere of the play-off success against Estonia. The atmosphere this Wednesday night will be more much relaxed than any group game, yet the crowd’s anticipation will be almost palpable. After all, this is not just a ‘friendly’. A convincing win over a fellow participant in Euro 2012 would do wonders for the Irish team’s confidence and, as Trapattoni has repeated since the beginning of his tenure as Irish boss, will improve Ireland’s FIFA ranking, which is always important for any international team. After breaking into the World’s Top 20 this month, for the first time since the dark ages of the Staunton Era, a win would push Ireland further up the table.
James McClean has been called up to the squad, and he may be the only one of the non-regulars who could squeeze into Trap’s trimmed-down squad of twenty-three for the June tournament. Trapattoni will not be testing out new players, so much as solidifying his starting XI, and possible substitutes. He will stick to the men who served him well in the twelve matches it took to get here.
The Czech Republic are a depleted team, and do not possess the quality they had several seasons ago. In Euro 2004, they were widely held as outside favourites to take the trophy. Despite being the only team to win all their group matches, they bowed out to the eventual winners, Greece. They only needed two wins against Liechtenstein, a win and draw against Scotland and a win against Lithuania to get to the play-offs. They managed to comfortably beat Montenegro in the play-offs, and despite being tipped as possible winners of Euro 2004, Ireland beat them 2-1 in Lansdowne Road in a warm-up game, before the two teams were drawn in the same group for the qualifications for Euro 2008. Ireland drew their home game before losing 2-1 in Prague. For the first time in recent memory, Ireland will come into this game as favourites.
Ireland will also play Bosnia and Herzegovina in Dublin at the end of May, and Hungary in Budapest, before jetting off to their training base in Gdynia. Three wins should be the result of these warm up games, against good quality, if not spectacular teams.
Changes are unlikely: Keane will lead the attack as usual, the defence and midfield will be largely the same, and pardoning the pun, the goalkeeper’s spot is a Given. Darron Gibson has been ruled out, leading the way for Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan to continue their partnership in midfield.
The Republic of Ireland are doing well at the moment, with qualification for their first major tournament in ten years, one of the best defensive records, one of the most experienced managers in Europe, as well as a large array of attacking options to choose from. With a home crowd and momentum from a strong 2011, anything less than a win will be disappointing from an Irish perspective.