Ireland Euro 2012 Focus – Republic fresh for Croatia

The Republic of Ireland squad were given a day off on Wednesday in response to feedback from the players that it would be the best course of action after an intensive training programme in the run-up to the opening round of Euro 2012 fixtures. They returned to training on Thursday with a renewed sense of purpose in preparation for the crucial game against Croatia on Sunday.

Midfielder Keith Andrews acknowledged the mental positives of having the day of rest, and stated, according to the Independent, that “it’s really lifted the lads”. Aiden McGeady had previously spoken up regarding the tiredness felt by the Irish players at half-time in their final warm-up game against Hungary, and it reflects well on manager Giovanni Trapattoni and his staff that they listened to their players and decided on the most beneficial course of action for maximising performance levels against Croatia.

The break also seems to have benefitted the progress of veteran goalkeeper Shay Given, who has been affected by niggling injuries since the squad joined together in late May. Given played an active part in training on Friday, but the main concern now lies in potential reactions to the injuries after the game.

In Ireland’s first European Championship appearance in 1988, their squad was littered was high profile players such as Paul McGrath, Frank Stapleton, Ronnie Whelan and Ray Houghton. There is not the same standard of individual this time round, but Trapattoni has been shaping his team according to its strengths since taking over. Much has been made of his naming of the starting XI in the run-up to the tournament, but there has been no secret as to how the Irish will play at the Euros. They will line up in a 4-4-2 with two central midfielders whose primary focus is to protect the back line. This makes Ireland difficult to beat, and they will hope to keep their opponents out and strike on the counter or from a set piece.

Taking their chances could be crucial for Ireland, and they will look to their wingers to provide ammunition for the likes of Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle. However, the latter is more of a workhorse than a prolific finisher, which could provide an opportunity for the lively Shane Long to make an impact. The West Brom man scored the winner in the recent friendly victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina, and his more clinical finishing than either Doyle or the similarly hard-working Jonathan Walters could earn him a prominent role as we move through the group games.

Ireland of course are huge outsiders, but so were Chelsea against Barcelona in this season’s Champions League, and even against Bayern Munich in the final. They proved that anything can happen in knockout football, which is how Ireland will treat their games in Poland. They were only eliminated on penalties in their last major competition, at the hands of Spain in the 2002 World Cup, and will draw inspiration from a tradition of being hard to beat. Indeed, only the famed handball incident against France cost them a place at the last World Cup.

Assistant manager Marco Tardelli has insisted to the Guardian that his charges are “here to demonstrate that we are not the Cinderella of Euro 2012”. Cinderella got to go to the ball, and Ireland will be hoping that a refreshed side can help them do so also.

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