Spain’s ruthless dispatching of a bewildered Republic of Ireland side in Gdansk means that they now have no hope of reaching the quarter finals of the tournament. An experience that was long anticipated has soured quickly and decisively. The report card does not make pleasant reading: 2 games played, 7 goals conceded, 1 goal scored. These basic statistics mask a more profound stage fright that seems to have consumed the Irish squad in their first international tournament since the World Cup in 2002. Ireland have conceded goals at crucial and damaging times, not only against Spain but also in their first match against Croatia.
Both teams scored goals in the first 5 minutes of their respective matches against the Irish and they also managed to score a goal apiece in the first 5 minutes after the half time interval. To these goals should be added Nikica Jelavic’s goal 2 minutes before half time, this changed the dynamics of the game entirely and deflated the Irish moments before they could have taken some time to reassemble and reinvigorate. All of this speaks to a lack of concentration or at least a certain complacency that is totally misplaced at that level of international football.
There have been more specific problems too. In an attempt to neutralise the fabulous array of playmakers at Spain’s disposal, Ireland flooded the midfield and tried to make themselves compact in the middle of the park.
This left them vulnerable down the flanks, particularly the left, and Spain almost always had an out-ball which undermined Ireland’s original tactical impetus. Robbie Keane has looked isolated when he doesn’t have the ball (especially against Spain) and ponderous and unimaginative in possession. Shay Given has been uncharacteristically leaky. He should have done better with Fernando Torres’ first goal-the surprise and the power of the strike are only partial explanations for his failure to save the shot.
Aiden McGeady has once again flattered to deceive on the big occasion. This was a regular criticism during his time at Celtic when Old Firm games, for example, would regularly end with him having contributed little or nothing of note. Midfielder Keith Andrews acknowledged that the Republic played a considerable part their own downfall. He was quoted on the BBC Sport website as saying: ‘We shot ourselves in the foot again by conceding silly goals. Spain are such a quality side and punish mistakes.’
A surprise victory against Italy would certainly salvage some national pride and add a respectable sheen to what has otherwise been a rather torrid spell in eastern Europe. It wouldn’t, however, be enough to disguise the flaws and failures that have marked the campaign to date. It also has to be rated as unlikely. Ireland’s performances only add to the sense that the continental game is accelerating away from those of us in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.
Watching Ireland I’ve been left to conclude that Scotland would probably have struggled in an equally abject manner. There has been some speculation that the conclusion of the tournament might herald the retirement for a number of stalwarts such as Keane, Given, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne. Kevin Kilbane has expressed his hope that this won’t happen and it would be disappointing if they were to bow out of international football with such a whimper.
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