Like they needed the help. Spain were only ever going to be denied victory over Ireland by the sort of rearguard action Giovanni Trapattoni’s men produced in the qualifying group game against Russia in Moscow. But whereas in Moscow the ball usually ended up rebounding off centre-back Richard Dunne’s arse, in Poznan, centre-back Sean St. Ledger ended up on his arse so often that you suspected he was wearing plimsolls. It’s these little details which make the difference at international level.
Having spent much of the day pondering the incongruity of midfield match-ups such as Andres Iniesta against Keith Andrews and Xabi Alonso against Glenn Whelan, what transpired in Gdansk should not have been any sort of shock. Ordinarily, I’d have been admiring the speed and fluidity of Spain’s passing. Iniesta’s runs at Italy’s defence are probably my highlight of the tournament to date. But here, my reaction was frustration and fear, not least because the breathtaking close control Iniesta produced against the Italians simply wasn’t required against Ireland, his opponents simply didn’t get near enough to him.
If you were in the mood for national stereotyping, you’d imagine that of all the languages in the world, Italian must have the most words for “keep it tight at the back in the early stages.” Yet they must all have deserted Trapattoni in Poland. It is easy to describe all goals conceded as bad ones. Managers do it all the time, which is far too often. But there was no resisting the temptation in this match. For the first goal, Dunne spoilt all the good work he’d put into a block tackle on the edge of the box by assuming he’d then have time and space to pick a pass out of his own penalty area. Even if Dunne could play, as opposed to being best at stopping other people playing, this looked unwise.
Keeper Shay Given took some stick for not stopping Fernando Torres’s subsequent shot but he was simply beaten for pace by a violent manifestation of the Spanish striker’s gradually returning confidence. And at this point, four minutes on the clock, the Spanish phrase quoted in ITV’s pre-match build-up, “there’s no two without three,” sprang uncomfortably to mind. Hopes that Spain might stop at three were to prove futile. Uefa’s statistics suggested Ireland had completed 92 passes in the first 33 minutes, when it was a struggle to recall three, let alone nearly three a minute. Striker Simon Cox had forced Spain’s otherwise under-employed keeper Iker Casillas into a proper save, low to his right, with a well-thumped twenty-yarder in the second minute. But after that, Ireland were spent as an attacking force for the rest of the half.
Nonetheless, they kept it to 1-0 until half-time, with increasing composure against a side whose passing and movement were still admirable, even if I was still too frightened of the possible consequences to properly appreciate it. And they must have thought that if they could keep it to 1-0 for any length of time after the break, the Spaniards might get complacent and… St. Ledger was aquaplaning across the turf again when David Silva threaded in Spain’s second, three inevitable minutes after the break. And he was on the seat of his pants again when Aiden McGeady ceded possession in the centre-circle to allow Torres to run through for third goal with, ulp, twenty minutes left.
So if there was to be a fourth goal, and I fully expected there to be one, I was by now praying that it would be a well-worked one. Such as Spain’s equaliser against Italy, when Cesc Fabregas swept the ball home after a slick-and-a-half passing move involving Iniesta and Silva. Well, Fabregas scored the fourth goal, all right. But there the comparison ended, as it came from the simplest of short corners which Fabregas slammed into the net on 82 minutes, taking with it all his frustrations at being a substitute. Fortunately, Spain declared at four, although even this merely allowed time to reflect on how many fine saves Given actually made and how much closer to the proverbial cricket score the final score might have been.
In a frank, reasoned post-match interview, Andrews, who was better than my daytime ponderings had led me to expect, said Ireland failed to learn from their mistakes, shot themselves in the foot and had were punished for lapses in concentration. But then he made a big mistake, praising Ireland’s magnificent support. He did qualify that with a lament that the team hadn’t played half as well as the support. But the damage was done. Back in ITV’s Warsaw studio, pundit Roy Keane’s face was turning a papal purple, as he rolled out a familiar rant at the “we’re only here for the sing-song” attitude. “Those supporters want us to win as well, you know,” Keane noted angrily.
This was harsh on Andrews, who only said how great the crowd were because he was asked the question. But Keane was in the mood, quite possibly the same mood he was in when he walked out on the Irish team before the 2002 World Cup. It was a shame Keane’s old playing adversary Patrick Viera, sat alongside him in ITV’s studio, didn’t playfully suggest that at least none of this Irish team had walked out. The ensuing brawl might have taken our minds off the match. Spain are arguably one of the two best teams in this tournament. Ireland are almost certainly among the two worst. And Roberto Martinez was probably right to suggest that we’d learned nothing new about this Spanish side in such a straightforward victory.
The gulf was best exposed by Spain’s introduction of Fabregas as a sub, where Ireland only had Paul Green. Calls for Trapattoni to “experiment” with the line-up for the Italy game merely translated as “start with James McClean.” So if it was going to go wrong for Ireland, it was always going to go badly wrong. And it did.
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