Category Archives: Italy

Preview 21 – Italy

Whatever else one might make of Italy at this World Cup, some part of their distinct appeal lies in a split at the squad’s core between two distinct media personalities. Prandelli’s azzurri is, on the one hand, home to a pair of “football geniuses” in the shape of Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, veteran experts of the game who have taken strides both on and off the field to establish themselves as “philosopher footballers”. On the other hand, Italy’s greatest attacking threat is widely understood to take the form of Mario Balotelli, a youthful figure of impulse, rashness and irregularity, something or someone who can never really be “understood”. Far beyond the usual discussions of calculable proven experience versus mercurial naivety, the simultaneous investment we make in these two types of figure shows us a much greater truth about our cultural life.

In a 2005 interview with artist Maria Castillo Deball for Cabinet magazine (later included in the publication’s tenth anniversary anthology Curiosity and Method), Buffon is given an opportunity to wax reflective about his career, his performances, and what drew him to football. His wit – which seems genuinely a cut above that demonstrated by other supposedly smart footballers like Countdown‘s Clark Carlisle – manifests itself in a self-aware statement that, for him, ‘intelligence isn’t about knowledge’ so much as the ability to ‘take an aesthetic pleasure in an idea’, to appreciate ‘its form and shape, rather than its tendency to harden into a series of irrefutable facts.’ Pushed by Castillo Deball as to whether he regards football as a ‘pastime’ or as his ‘primary obsession’, Buffon is able to represent his career itself as something which arises directly out of this roving, inquiring, “intelligent” view of the world:

 My approach to knowledge is playful. I am a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. If I chose a particular discipline the charm would be gone, because choosing one means dismissing the    others […] I tried to limit the possibilities, to find an activity in which I could keep the     amusement, the pleasure, but within very specific rules so that I wouldn’t get distracted by    everything. By choosing football, I killed two birds with one stone.

As if his mere presence in a publication like Cabinet weren’t enough to clinch honorary intellectual status for the azzurri goalkeeper, here Buffon adds to his credentials by painting himself as someone who is able to stand outside of the compulsion to play football; he is in a position to represent this compulsion as contingent, something which was chosen from among many other options.

What is established here, in a way that diverges somewhat from Buffon’s insistence on embracing equivocality, is a sense that Buffon is wholly in control of his own persona on the pitch. His contribution to the game is committed but fundamentally voluntary, and contingent on the mastery of “very specific rules”. As Buffon reveals elsewhere, even the apparently spontaneous elements of his performance are calculated and governed: ‘Many people don’t like the way I play; they think I am over-acting, screaming too much, trying to win the attention of the cameras, but I do that intentionally to maintain the link between sport and the notion that it is truly just a circus.’ Regardless of the preference for chaos voiced in this statement, Buffon hereby constructs himself as a footballing auteur; a cool, calm master of all his faculties. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that Andrea Pirlo also conforms to this type. Pirlo, nicknamed “the architect”, is consistently described as a player of astute self-possession, capable of remaining calm, focused and methodical while battle rages around him. In his vaunted autobiography, recently translated into English under the title I Think Therefore I Play, Pirlo goes as far as to describe himself as a philosopher; remarking, ‘being a philosopher is to think, seek wisdom and have principles that guide and influence what you do. Everything is thought through, there is no spontaneity.’ Clearly, Pirlo lacks some of Buffon’s tendency towards self-effacement, and his articulation is revealing: in this self-characterisation, Pirlo claims – not without some justification as far as raw talent is concerned – to be able to regulate what others cannot.

The “other” in this sentence is amply identified in the figure of Mario Balotelli. There are not one but three ways in which Balotelli embodies the opposite virtues to those with which Pirlo and Buffon more or less consciously align themselves. Firstly, there is the on-pitch Balotelli familiar to us from his time at Manchester City, governed not by rationality but by impulse, by spontaneity and outburst. During regulation time he might do anything; his game might just as easily be defined by a 35-yard curler into the top corner or a bite of someone’s ear. Secondly, there is less cohesion between the on-pitch and off-pitch versions of Balotelli than there is with his more senior compatriots: discussions of his career tend to position him as someone for whom football is a functional means of expression, in contrast with the dysfunctional means of expression that he chooses off the pitch – throwing darts at academy players, lighting fireworks indoors, buying Vespas instead of household essentials, and so on. Thirdly, there is the issue of class. Whilst Buffon and Pirlo are characterised as standing some way “above” the charms of football, able to step outside of it and make rational decisions about how to play and whether to play, we get a sense from Balotelli’s presentation in the media that he himself needs football, would be nothing without it. A millionaire and seasoned professional, Balotelli is still liable to be represented as a kind of mad street child who just manages to hold it together on the pitch (or, occasionally, doesn’t manage).  Crucially, where Buffon and Pirlo are entitled to speak for themselves – extracts from Pirlo’s translated autobiography were reproduced as a column in the Guardian‘s sport section in April – Balotelli is always held up as something requiring narration, an enigma that demands to be interpreted. In Balotelli’s first interview for British television it was the voice of ITV’s Ned Boulting that predominated, along with that of the player’s biographer Raffaele Panizza, and other supporting cast. Balotelli makes occasional interjections to support, or obstruct, Boulting’s narrativisation of him. A remark made in a second interview, with Time journalist Catherine Mayer, shows Balotelli’s awareness of his own spoken-for-ness: in response to Mayer’s provocation that ‘we read all sorts of things about you, it’s quite hard to know what’s true and what isn’t true’, the striker remarks, ‘maybe they just enjoy talking about me’.

What we see here is something peculiarly psychoanalytic about the way we construct ourselves as subjects.  It has long been thought that psychoanalysis is about delving into the deep human unconscious, implying internal subjectivity down there in the subject’s psyche.  Since the 1960s it has been the biggest task of Lacanian psychoanalysis to demonstrate that (even in Freud) this is not quite so.  Lacan stresses that the unconscious is not the unconstructed and disordered chaos within the individual but something that we socially construct and make appear as if it is disordered and unconstructed.  It is something like this process that we see in the attitudes of Pirlo and Buffon.  They want to see Balotelli as the unrefined and unregulated figure – even as more primal, with all the dangers attached to that.  In doing so they affirm themselves in the tradition of Western philosophy that has been able to move beyond and control those impulsive behaviours; as Buffon says, even his impulses are deliberately performed, controlled; he is able to regulate his unconscious.  Balotelli on the other hand, as if he has read Lacan, demonstrates to us that the unconscious was never unregulated, never in need of controlling. As a representation of the unconscious, he is exactly the figure that those philosophers need to affirm themselves as superior. He is spoken-for, made into the figure of impulse, in order to construct what impulse is and affirm those who control it.

Posted by Alfie Bown and Luke Healey

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Advertisements

Balotelli and a Bold New Italy

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t loved watching Italy in this tournament? They’ve combined a tournament’s worth of interesting backdrops and subtexts into one team, while also playing some of the most thrilling and enterprising football ever seen from the Azzuri.

The classic Italian footballing virtue of pragmatism hasn’t been abandoned by any means, the team is built on the core of Conte’s Juventus side, with a no-nonsense shaven-headed back four that could have just stepped out of an audition for a new series of Prison Break. Their team spirit is clearly impressive and Prandelli has even managed to get potential mavericks like Cassano and Balotelli focussed and working hard for the greater good. So far, so Italy.

What is new is their aggressive pressing and the speed of thought and quick interplay they exhibit going forward. In my memory, Italian teams have tended towards the patient and conservative, winning the ball back through great organisation but also passivity, sitting back and making themselves impossible to play through, and relying on a few very talented individuals to make the breakthroughs in attack.

This Italy, however, is no longer content to sit and wait. They hunt for the ball, they hunt in packs, and when they get the ball they pass it quickly and incisively within those packs – the flicks, one-twos, clever movement and sheer exhilaration they exhibited was, in that most hoary of footballing clichés, ‘just like watching Brazil’. Watching a 33 year old Pirlo and his telepathic understanding of position nicking the ball from a perspiring German toe before executing yet another inch perfect outside- footed mid-range pass into the path of a scurrying and determined Italian attacker will live on as the enduring image of this tournament, and him the player of the tournament, in a way that recalls Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama at his absolute best.

The interest doesn’t end there. Once more, an Italian team has honed itself into a lethal weapon against the backdrop of a domestic corruption scandal, with Juventus again implicated. This does not strike me as coincidence. Italy are perennial contenders at any major tournament, but with that comes an incredible pressure of domestic expectation. England’s limp quarter-final exit would see an Italian coach sacked, regardless of the quality of the opposition or the personnel available to him. Anything less than a semi-final is a failure and prompts a national inquest from a passionate but intrusive press.

This time, though, the nation again has bigger footballing issues on its mind. It is impossible to expect the best of players given such apparently unfavourable conditions, yet, paradoxically, those conditions force the team into a ‘bond or bust’ mentality, while simultaneously removing that often crippling pressure of expectation. The team has no choice but to stand together against outsiders, knowing also that, just for once, they will not come home as poster-boys for failure if they don’t impress in the latter stages. Like in the 2006 World Cup, the scandal has enabled a group of very talented players with a strong team ethic to concentrate on the primary aim of winning football matches, an aim they have striven for very impressively so far.

My favourite subplot, though, is also my favourite player in this team: Mario Balotelli. Already the man of the tournament in terms of column inches devoted to faux-moralising, he is on the verge of becoming the one thing these Euros have lacked so far – a game changing striker consistently hitting the back of the net. That he does hit the net should not generate the mock surprise it does from those who love to hate him for being a one-man generator of the kind of tedious non-troversy that dominates far too much football coverage these days. Despite the image of him as a brainless hot-head, forever one temper tantrum away from self and team destruction, Balotelli on the ball is the epitome of cool.

Look at his second goal. One of the very best striker’s finishes I’ve seen anywhere this season. Taken early, instinctively, only one touch to bring it under control before powering it into the net. Maybe questions can be asked of the German keeper – but only watching a replay in slow motion. In real time the ball was in the back of the net before it even seemed in a position to be hit. It’s the kind of finish that can only achieved by a confident striker who, whatever his other strengths and weaknesses, needs only the ball and goal to be in reasonable proximity before his one-track mind takes over and his foot, head or miscellaneous body part do the rest.

It’s great to see, and not just for footballing reasons. The spectre of racism has hung over this tournament as it was always going to. The response from football’s governing bodies has, as ever, been morally reprehensible, hypocritical and plain old pathetic. Even in support of Balotelli the Italian press subjected him to a highly objectionable King-Kong cartoon. By scoring that second goal, and then later doing that most Italian of things – hugging his beloved mama – Balotelli has probably done more good in Italy’s fight against racism than FIFA, UEFA or the Italian government have managed in a generation.

That’s not to downplay the importance of politics or structural changes in combating racism- in fact it’s the lack of those kind of real initiatives which make the footballing authorities such an unbridled disgrace on this issue – more to point out that, just as in England, the impact of quality footballers playing quality football can have a genuine and lasting impact on both the perception of and discourse around race. In that sense, it’s even more fortunate that the player in question is Mario Balotelli because, again despite his image, he is an interesting and articulate young man.

All that said, I must take a moment to acknowledge that he does, quite clearly, also have a crazy side. I need to acknowledge it because that’s what I absolutely love about him. He reminds me hugely of Bulgaria’s greatest and possibly moodiest talent – Hristo Stoitchkov. Balotelli is undoubtedly prone to the odd tantrum and some inappropriate reactions, but like Stoitchkov he’s also capable of channelling that fire into performances of devastating brilliance, hard work and real focus.

The celebration for that second goal really showcased this. Yes, it was arguably a stupid yellow card. On the other hand a look at Balotelli’s eyes at that moment ought to strike a little fear into the hearts of Spanish defenders. This was a young man revelling in the brightness of the spotlight he’s had forced upon him ever since his talent became apparent. This was a young man taking the light shone on him, often unjustly, and turning it into a new light coming from within him. He seemed to be signalling to the world: “I am Balotelli, I am here, I am ready and I am dangerous. I can deal with it – can you?”

Even better was his reaction to the win. Commentators have already moaned about it (and laughably so, having been castigated for his emotional over-reactions he is now being accused of excessive coldness – as is often the case with Balotelli it’s become criticism for criticism’s sake rather than anything based on a real transgression) but where some saw a lack of emotion or engagement with his team mates I got a sense of maturity and focus. It’s not that Balotelli was unconcerned or unhappy – it’s that he was already mentally moving on to Spain. He was seeing his surroundings, feeling like he belonged, and already turning to the far more important next step of actually winning rather than just getting there.

Maybe this is all just hyperbole, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that Balotelli is still just 21. He would not be the first young man to forge a better focus out of the furnace of youthful controversy. In this sense, the unpleasant treatment he’s received may actually help him in the long run. That’s not to justify it, more to point out that those with strength of mind can turn the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune into a real core of strength. Compare this to Wayne Rooney whose tantrums and tears have continually been excused and indulged, and we have on the one hand an incredible talent whose focus seems increasingly to be drifting away, a man who no longer seems to have the mentality to fulfil the genius he exhibited in his teenage years. On the other we have a player baptised in hardship, subject to abuse, racist and otherwise, and all sorts of speculation and attack from friends as much as enemies, but who now looks increasingly ready to channel both his talent and his temper into football’s ultimate difference maker: scoring goals.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

Tagged

Italy – A Primer

In Trento, English poet Matthew Gregory interviews Alan Maglio about Italian footballing philosophy, the variety of contemporary Serie A and Cesare Prandelli’s approach to Euro 2012:

 

MG: Something very interesting in the Italy-Spain match was the use of Daniele De Rossi as a ‘creative sweeper’. I can’t immediately recall a player in my lifetime taking up that role. It was a very crafty modification from Prandelli, as I think Spain were expecting Italy to play deep and try to counter attack, but be limited by their passing options at the back. With De Rossi, they had a real passer in a very unusual position! It allowed the Italians to release their second playmaker, Pirlo, and the forwards, as soon as they won the ball. Perhaps Matthias Sammer used to play a similar role for Germany? Do you think they’ll continue with this system during the England game? Or will that require a whole new set-up?

AM: I think that De Rossi played with great determination against Spain in that position unusual for him; in my opinion Prandelli will use him again in front of the defence. We must consider that Chiellini had an injury in the final minutes of the game against Ireland, so it will be very important to keep quality players also at the back. The example of Sammer is right, normally quality midfielders can be switched back in a more defensive role at the end of their careers, when athletic energies and the ability to run for long part of the matches starts to fade (another similar example in German teams could also be Lothar Mathaus in the national team and his last years at Bayern Munchen, when he led his team to a Uefa Cup).

I think Italy-England will be a very balanced game, unpredictable in the final result. For sure the Italian team is not the best ever, many players are inexperienced to play at this level… Bonucci, Giaccherini, Nocerino, Abate…. I had good impressions of Marchisio and Balzaretti. The Englandteam looks fresh and young, Carroll and Welbeck were impressive against Sweden, now that Rooney is back in the game Hodgson (who knows Italian football well) can mix young talents and experienced players.

MG: Pirlo has been for the Italians what the Spanish call Xavi, the ‘titiritero’, the puppeteer, or puppet master. His assist for Di Natale against Spain was indicative of what he is. England very rarely possess a player like that, or if they do, they tend to leave them back at home. The one thing that Pirlo seems to embody is harmony: as if the world can wait while he gets things right. And he sets the example for the rest of the team. That’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in general while I’ve been in Italy. A friend of mine, from Lithuania, made an interesting observation. He noticed that Sorrento tomatoes would lose their flavour if not cut precisely – easily done, in fact, almost impossible not to do, if you know little about the Sorrento tomato. The juice floods out of a few vessels in the fruit. He proposed that if an atomic scientist were to analyse the way that any good home-cook of the area sliced the Sorrento tomato, he would find a molecular harmony in the incision. I can’t exactly confirm that, but, you know. I thought it was wonderfully illustrative of something about Italy. In comparison, there is a noticeable kind of ‘discord’, when I think of English teams in my lifetime, a volatile energy that can either be successful, catching the opposition unawares with the vigour and speed of the assault, or it leads to things like that Germany game in the last World Cup! Under Roy Hodgson, at least there seems to be a noticeable calm over the team. But not on the pitch, still, I don’t think, and perhaps there never will be the same kind of composure I see in Italy or Spain, or the Germans at their most magisterial. But I wonder why?

AM: Pirlo is a unique player, one of the key men in the 2006 World Cup and many Champions League editions for AC Milan. Last year the Rossoneri didn’t want to renew his contract – after disappointing for Italy at 2010 WC, many thought that his talent was fading. So he went to Juventus for no money, with a new contract signed with the Bianconeri. Juve desperately needed to refound the team after Serie B and anonymous seasons in Serie A. They couldn’t choose anyone better: Pirlo played a magnificent season, reasoning for a team full of fast men on the wings and athletic players on midfield. In the national team Pirlo shows his talent at his best, even if is not so fast as WC 2006, he still can play the ball under his great vision suggesting the movements to all the team. Spain’s ideal is to play with a goalkeeper and 10 players like Pirlo, bypassing the idea of defenders, midfielders or forwards. Iniesta and Xavi are the best expression of this updated version of football that looks back to Dutch football of the 70s, when everybody must do everything. In English tradition the spirit is different, football is very fast and athletic, it’s difficult for Pirlos or Xavis to come out and play in the national team, maybe a good expression of that kind of player was Gascoigne, but sadly his career was too short and underrated for the talent he had.

MG: Something I’ve become more and more aware of is the diversity of tactical approaches in Serie A. A universal ‘Italian’ style doesn’t seem to be applicable to the league. Juventus, this year, for instance, played very differently to the two Milan clubs, who, in turn, played very differently to SSC Napoli. In fact, when I think of those four teams, there is very little to unite them as being recognisably Italian. Juventus and Inter seem to contain some of the older traits, but with more contemporary variation. I couldn’t spot an overwhelmingly universal system, like catenaccio or the patient possession play, that outsiders immediately think of when they consider Italian football. Napoli’s three-pronged counter-attack, with the two South Americans and Hamsik, was explosive, while Juventus in their midfield play were very expansive and enterprising. Who do you think Prandelli has learnt the most from, in terms of league football?

AM: Prandelli is involving in the national team a lot of Juventus players, basically the whole defence of the Bianconeri. Antonio Conte won the last Serie A also with a very solid defence in the team. So Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci for Italy is in fact the Juventus back rank, Pirlo, Giaccherini and Marchisio the middle line. Good players form other teams are Maggio from Napoli, a very fast winger, Di Natale from Udinese (underrated player at international level, but probably the best and most talented Italian forward we have in Serie A), Thiago Motta from PSG (ex-Inter) who seems a bit tired and probably will not play versus England. Keep in mind Nocerino from AC Milan, if he will have a chance to play, he can be a very good surprise, last year Milan bought him from Palermo for €500.000 and he became since day one a decisive player in the midfield, scoring 10(!) goals in the last Serie A. Prandelli should give him a chance in my opinion!

MG: Yes, I like Di Natale. A real predator of the old school. And though he plays for Udinese, he’s from Napoli, isn’t he? It’s interesting, that the defence and the midfield is largely from Juventus, a northern team, notable for their organisation and composure, and the attack, Cassano, Di Natale and Balotelli, are by origin, of the south. I’ve never been to Bari or Palermo, but I’ve lived in Napoli for a little while, and I wouldn’t say organisation or composure were traits of that city! A far cry from Torino. There is a real culture of street football in Napoli, where all public space essentially takes on new chaotic dimensions of football space in an instant, like in Brazil or Argentina. I don’t suppose it’s quite the same in the more orderly cities of the north. It seems illustrative of life in this country that Italy’s most adventurous, reckless forward players, Cassano and Balotelli are southerners, from the streets of Bari and Palermo, while the linchpins are from the unruffled north. A very interesting dynamic, and not one that’s always true, but in this case, it seems to be.

Posted by Matthew Gregory with Alan Maglio

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook

Tagged , , ,

Irish Fans, Disenchantment with Trap and Why Roy Keane Has A Point (Sort of)

I came back home from Poland this week after a tournament that was both an unforgettable social experience and a thoroughly miserable one from a footballing point of view for an Irish fan. Right now I am desirous only of watching the rest of the tournament from the comfort of my couch. One thing I was surprised at on returning was the extent of the impression we — the Irish fans — made on people; it was palpable in Poland all right, where the hosts and the Irish engaged in an almost embarrassing, if endearing, level of mutual admiration, but the number of YouTube videos documenting the now famous looping rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was something I was not prepared for. It also got me thinking again of something I have asked myself before — most recently after the 4-0 defeat by Spain: would I trade in this universal admiration for Irish fans for a stronger, more formidable team and footballing culture?

In a way, there need not have to be a choice. Roy Keane was pilloried for attacking the fans in the midst of the Spain game, having woefully misread the singing as placid acceptance of a terrible performance. If anything, it was a mournfully defiant plaint that marked the inevitable passing of the Ireland team out of the tournament — and I would suggest, subconsciously, the passing of Irish football into the wilderness, if the rot is not soon stopped. There was an underlying sense among the fans that this might be the last chance we get for some time for Irish football to appear on the highest stage. Keane thought we were there for the sing-song and presumably wanted us to voice more discontent at what was an insultingly abject performance. He would have a point in suggesting that Ireland fans should be more vocal in expressing their disappointment but the timing and the manner of his outburst indicates that he just doesn’t get fans. That’s hardly surprising, given the man who once criticised some Manchester United fans as there for the prawn sandwiches has probably not stood on a terrace in over two decades.

Keane’s comments are in line with his anger over squandering a two-goal lead away to the Netherlands in September 2000 to draw a 2-2 and his disgust at Ireland’s poor preparation at Saipan ahead of the World Cup two years later. His timing in all three of these cases though has been questionable. Roy doesn’t do diplomacy, it is true, but you sense that had he chosen his battles better, he might have won the war. Many Irish fans — even those that stood by Mick McCarthy ten years ago — supported Keane’s stance against the FAI, but now that he has attacked them, the bridges are irredeemably burnt. Turning on the fans was a step too far.

Before the tournament, I voiced a little scepticism over whether Ireland fans were actually the ‘best in the world’. I still hold to that, mainly because I think it’s a sterile argument. Even within the same club and the same national team’s support, there are divergences in style, attitude and intensity. Ireland’s reputation derives in the main from the fact that the fans like to party and do so in a good-humoured, friendly and often hilariously surreal way. With a few exceptions, the culture of supporting a country these days is a far gentler one than in the club game; when teams convene for a tournament like the Euros, carnival is the prevailing tone and atmosphere. In Poland at least — the geographical division meant two separate tournaments were effectively being held — Ireland fans were probably the most visible and impressive in this respect, though the hosts came a close second. That said, we had a lot to learn from the way Croatian ultras lit up the stadium in Poznan with illegally smuggled flares and the Spanish outsang us for stretches of the match in Gdansk too (though that was easily done when their team were walloping us so). Both groups of supporters — with the exception of the small minority of Croats who racially abused Mario Balotelli — were similarly good-humoured and friendly. The Italians likewise, even if their fans lacked the charisma and the verve of the other three countries in the group — you get the sense Italians who follow the national team are more genteel and more casual than those who follow the clubs.

In a piece for the Sunday Independent last week, Dion Fanning cast aspersions on the Irish fans’ ‘festival of eejitry’. While Fanning was trying to make some valid points targeting both the Irish media and FAI CEO John Delaney, he caught the fans in some muddled, pious crossfire. Not least his decrying the abundant drinking that was going on — Ireland’s binge-drinking culture is definitely a worrying phenomenon but choosing as exemplary a tournament where fans of all sixteen countries were overindulging is just weird. But his point about the self-professed best fans in the world being an embodiment of Irish self-regard was spot on. It might seem churlish to say so but this self-regard has a corrosive flipside, one which results in Irish people sacrificing necessary social friction for the sake of maintaing an amiable front. Irish people want to be loved by people — including each other — and this has resulted in generations of cosy consensus that has paralysed the country in a self-prophesying conservatism. We saw it with the re-election of Fianna Fáil to government at the 2007 election, just at the moment when it was increasingly clear Bertie Ahern and the party were mired in endemic corruption; we have since seen it with the way austerity has failed to spark any mass indignation of note. It would be a stretch to say that Roy Keane is indicative of a counter-current against this consensus but more of his dissenting is probably needed. What isn’t needed is his indelicacy of expressing it, because the Irish don’t like indelicacy much.

Like Keane, I have long thought Irish football should be held to higher standards, even at a moment like the present when we clearly don’t have the personnel we had in the past. Expecting to qualify for a major tournament is not an outlandish demand, especially as we have reached play-offs for six out the last nine, qualifying for two. If we can go so far so often, why not expect us to go just a little further? During the Italy match, the fan’s ire was directed at Keane and there were no audible murmurings of anti-Trapattoni dissent. I don’t think that will ever come either, however unhappy the fans might be. Irish fans — and people in general — would recoil from subjecting a 73-year-old man to public vilification, however increasingly Lear-like he becomes in his dismissals of all suggestions of his footballing mortality. Many Irish people were repelled by the way the hapless Stephen Staunton was pilloried by the tabloid media; Stan was probably the worst manager ever an Irish team had to labour under but he should never have been put in the position he was.

The wave of dissent against Trapattoni is instead likely to be expressed by abstention. The FAI has already had difficulty filling the Aviva Stadium for competitive and friendly matches alike, creating a few financial jitters along the way as it hopes to recoup its part of the investment in the new stadium. Admittedly, the cause wasn’t helped by a relatively unglamorous Euro 2012 qualifying group, where Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra were the visitors. But the dreariness of watching Trapattoni’s Ireland play compounds things too and you expect the crowds to thin out as the performances and the results inevitably worsen in the qualifiers for World Cup 2014. Ireland play Germany in Dublin in October and there is little in our most recent performances to suggest we will avoid a humiliation on home soil. Personally, I have resolved not to spend another penny supporting Ireland, either home or away — the fact I live in Paris means both demand travelling — while Trapattoni is in charge. There are probably many like me. It is a shame because there are some very attractive away weekends and home matches in that group — trips to Germany, Sweden and Austria among them. The prospect of abject performances and possible heavy defeats though makes you loth to go. It’s a tough group even for a team in the right frame of mind but an Ireland without Trap could give it a decent go. As it stands though Ireland look doomed. Germany look set to be their usual rampant self in qualifiers and Sweden are also shaping up to be the country’s best side in decades, having shown some fleeting glimpses of brilliance in Ukraine. Ireland have been generally comfortable against Scandinavian teams over the past two decades but Sweden also have the ineffable ability to hoover up points against medium and weak opposition — something Ireland, even under Trapattoni’s pragmatism have rarely been able to perfect.

Ireland fans reconciled themselves to Trapattoni’s unsightly, outdated football for as long as there was a possibility of some glory in return. After Poland, that possibility has now been exhausted. The argument that Ireland simply don’t have the players is one as bankrupt as Trapattoni’s tactics — he leaves more talented players like Darron Gibson, Shane Long and James McClean on the bench while refusing to call up others such as Ciarán Clarke, Séamus Coleman and Wes Holohan. Trapattoni’s lack of trust in Irish footballers has stifled any possible creativity in the team — Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy got Irish teams not much more talented playing some good football, with results into the bag too. The current crop can definitely punch above their weight in a way unimaginable to their veteran manager. Irish fans now find themselves in the invidious position familiar to fans of Blackburn and Aston Villa over the past season — saddled with a manager bringing the team up a dead-end, they nonetheless don’t want to see them lose. The prospect of a tough group and progressively low attendances will sooner or later result in Trapattoni’s departure. By then, it will probably be too late to salvage the fight for a trip to Brazil. That may have been sitting at the back of Ireland fans’ minds when they sang that rousing rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in Gdansk.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Le vert, c’est les autres…

I haven’t blogged since the Ireland-Spain game partly because I have been following Virginia Woolf’s dictum that one shouldn’t write when one is angry and partly because I’ve been laid lowish with a slight bout of summer flu. To be honest, I wouldn’t have much to add to what I wrote the morning of the Spain match. It was all too predictable, even as some of us held out hope that we could pull something out of the fire before we went out on a high.

There’s been no escaping the fact it has been a disastrous tournament for the Irish, and despite the mournful defiance of the singing at the end on Thursday night, the results have had an effect on the fans’ morale. The mood on the streets and in the campsites is a lot more subdued now though that has much to do with fatigue after almost two weeks on the road.

Ireland can salvage some pride by beating Italy tonight but it’s hard to see how César Prandelli’s side, bent on attacking and needing a win, will fail to do the job. For all its faults this Italian team is not as brittle as Donadoni’s four years ago or Lippi’s hapless one in South Africa. When Trapattoni is now shifting the blame to the players for not showing leadership in the first two matches, you sense he’s not working too hard at outwitting Prandelli this evening. My predictions for the tournament so far have not been entirely successful, and I have probably shown far too much faith in Ireland prior to their first two matches. I’m afraid that faith has deserted me today, and I expect Italy to beat us 2-0, even if that may not in itself be enough to send them through.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Tagged ,

The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Tagged , , , ,

Dispatch from Poznań — A More Panoramic view than Panorama

20120610-114212.jpg

There was no sign of any trouble in Poznan on our first night here. Far from it — the town square was packed with Poles, Irish and Croatians mingling and singing long through the night. I was told that riot police moved in on Friday night, nervous at the first sign of mixing of fans but they quickly stepped back. The Poles have been great hosts, entering into the party spirit with gusto and seizing on a great opportunity to showcase their country. Most visiting fans have most likely adopted Poland as their second team and the crucial match against Russia on Tuesday should be a cracker.

The football so far has been excellent, with the hosts and the Greeks giving great battle in the opening match. The Poles will be disappointed they didn’t make more of their first-half possession but it all could have been much worse if Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t save a penalty with his first touch of the ball. The performance of the tournament so far was the Russians, a brilliantly fluid and sophisticated display with Dzagoev and Arshavin in particular excellent. How good they are is hard to gauge, as the Czechs were quite poor but it will cause Dick Advocaat some alarm that the Russians surrendered the initiative for 15 minutes early in the second half to a reshaped Czech formation. Poland and Greece will have taken comfort from that.

The group of death has just got even deathlier. The Netherlands are now in a precarious position having to beat both Germany and Portugal to be sure of going through. They actually played quite well against Denmark although their defensive shortcomings were badly exposed on several occasions, including when Michael Krohn-Delhi cut inside Gregory van der Viel far too easily for the goal. The Dutch will also be aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty at the end for handball but you have to doff your cap to the Danes, who turned in a superb defensive performance. Going forward, they were much less confident and the final ball was often found wanting. Three points on the board is more than anyone expected of them after the first game but getting out of the group will still be a huge task, as four points will quite likely not be enough.

Germany were as we have come to expect — solid in attack, much less so in defence where Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng bailing out Badstuber and Hummels more than once. The winner was courtesy of a splendid Mario Gomez header, the first time he’s ever looked the part in a tournament match. It’s a bad start for the Portuguese but they’ll probably be thankful the second game is against the Danes and not the Dutch, even if Denmark did defeat them 2-1 in qualifying in Copenhagen last October.

Today is Ireland’s big day and the green army are feeling confident. I don’t expect to see a very expansive game even though Slaven Bilić is threatening an attacking approach to get points in the bag first off. It could well be the tournament’s first scoreless draw but I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Irish win by the narrowest of margins. The other match could be the one that gives an insight into Spain’s chances of completing that elusive three tournaments in a row. I don’t think they’ll beat Italy and they may even be on the back foot by eight o’clock local time tonight.

Tagged , , ,

Football as Drama – Mad Men and Euro 2012

With the great Alan Latchley’s inspirational Dare to Fail philosophy ringing in my ears, I spent part of this week considering the similarities between top-level international football and television dramas. We are constantly being told that we are living through the latter’s golden age, and, if the quality of today’s opening games is anything to go by, the former is also in pretty fine fettle. In order to progress my deliberations, I began to imagine the main contenders for Euro 2012 as characters in one of the shows that illustrates television’s current cultural hegemony, AMC’s Mad Men. The show is feted for many things, including its style, the quality and diversity of its characters, and its general ability to arouse in the viewer an empathy for people they might possibly dislike (or even despise) in real life. In many ways, these are qualities we seek from an international football tournament. To bravely, and stupidly, contradict Latchley, football is nothing unless it is about something, and what it is about is ensemble drama.

Watching Russia last night, I was reminded of Roger Sterling, the WASP-ish co-founder of Sterling Cooper, the company where the bulk of the action in the show takes place. Sterling, like the Russia of recent vintage, is characterised by a sense of swashbuckling adventure that borders on self-destruction. Russia were brilliant last night, but it’s hard to imagine any other Euro 2012 contender continuing to play in such an attacking manner while two goals to the good.  They were lucky that their Czech opponents could not convert potential opportunities into goals, just as Roger is so fortuitous to have been born with such wealth and affable charm. Also, based on the bizarre – and occasionally hilarious – posts on his website, it’s not hard to imagine Andrey Arshavin enjoying an LSD trip with his wife.

For many, the star of Mad Men is Peggy Olson, whose rise through the ranks of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reflected the changing nature of American society in the early sixties. Her transformation is not unlike that of Joachim Low’s Germany. Despite sustained success at the highest level, (West) Germany were always respected rather than loved. Like Peggy, they initially got by on their organisational skills and sheer determination. In recent times, however (arguably since their successful hosting of the 2006 World Cup), the functional nature of their national team began to give way, as a new generation of technically brilliant young players emerged. Mesut Ozil’s eminent displays at the heart of the German team mirror Peggy’s development into a uniquely imaginative, more rounded contributor to the firm’s creative output. Like Germany, she now thrives on ingenuity as well as mental strength.

Pete Campbell, on the other hand, sees a different route to the top of the advertising world. While he is not lacking in creativity or technique, he prefers to rely on craft, guile and an almost ruthless will to win. In this, he resembles Italy. Euro 2008 is now remembered for the technical brilliance of the ultimate victors, Spain. However, if their semi-final penalty shoot-out had gone differently, we might have found ourselves speaking of champions who seemed almost as content to prevent others having fun as to have it themselves. Five minutes watching Campbell in action, and the similarities are impossible to escape.

Don Draper Wiki.jpg

‘We are playin’ Four, Four, F**kin’ Two!’

And what of Don Draper? One of modern television’s behemoths, the magnitude of his creative genius is often overwhelming. His character overpowers even the most self-assured of his colleagues and opponents. So he’s Spain, obviously. However, Don has a past littered with mistakes and personal disappointments, which often come back to haunt him at the worst possible junctures. Only six years ago, Spain started their World Cup campaign so brightly and brilliantly that a friend from Granada refused to listen to any counsel that did not foresee ultimate victory. Alas, their efforts were sabotaged by flaws that were all too recognisable. Will they continue to dominate the international scene, or will the mistakes of their past come back to haunt them?

There are many other parallels. Dutch football has had more than its fair share of creative yet outspoken individuals who have clashed, often publicly, with their colleagues. Stan Rizzo has a lot of that about him.  Harry Crane must see himself in Ireland’s performances under Trapattoni; uninspired, lacking in imagination or genuine quality, but cute and organised enough to make a little go a long way. The decline of Portugal and Czech Republic, great teams from the past often more likely to embarrass themselves as they are to regain the love of the neutral with their swashbuckling performances, calls to mind the lowest point in Freddy Rumsen’s professional career.

However, beyond the teams and characters, there is another important connection to be made. Mad Men is known for the slick exteriors and  stylish presentation. It is so fashionable that Don Draper’s silhouetted pose during the opening credits has inspired a pop-culture movement. However, the show is not great because of its style. It is great in spite of it. Beneath all the sharp suits, sexy skirts and uber-cool offices and apartments are the real strengths of the show; the great characters, the brilliant dialogue, and the constant surprises. On the surface, football has become so slick, so packaged and so bloated. Its commercialisation is not without its unpleasant aspects. However, no matter how many seats are sacrificed for bigger pitchside hoardings selling us stuff we don’t even really want, the hidden depths will never go away. Ultimately, football will continue to be all about people doing things you never expected them to do.

Posted by Flann MacGowan

Predictions

20120608-085009.jpg

I expect a tournament with one or two surprises but which will ultimately see the established order prevail. For winners, it’s hard to see beyond Germany. The Mannschaft have been building up a head of steam since Jürgen Klinnsmann’s days in charge at the 2006 World Cup. After being frustrated twice by Spain in past tournaments, they now look a more assured, more streamlined side. Not that they are without defaults though; none of the combinations of Badstuber, Mertesacker, Howedes and Hummels make a fully confident centre-half pairing and they rely on support from the wing backs as well as Khedira and Schweinsteiger in front of them. But going forward, Germany are irresistible, with Mesut Özil now one of the best attacking midfielders in the world. Scoring goals is rarely a problem for the Germans but the wild inconsistency of Mario Gómez can throw up a few problems too. It’s hard to see how Joachim Löw can justify starting him ahead of Miroslav Klose.

Joining the Germans in the semi-final will probably be the Netherlands, who are still as strong as two years ago, while shedding some of the less savoury abrasiveness they displayed in South Africa. Though I have speculated on Spain having a shock early exit, if they get out of the group, they should reach the semi-finals too. A stern test from one of the Dutch or the Germans will probably be the undoing though of a heavily fatigued side. Rounding off the semi-finalists will be Italy, whom I expect to hit the ground running in the tournament, their poor form in friendlies notwithstanding.

The surprise package is likely to be Poland, who have a very manageable group and also some exciting young talent in Robert Lewandowski, Wojciech Szczesny and Jakub Blaszczykowski. They will fare better than co-hosts Ukraine, who have been looking only weaker than ever in the run-up to the Euros and who will need more than home advantage to seriously trouble Sweden, France or England. The French should impress too but they are probably still two years off being a fully formed side. The quarter-finals is likely as far as they will go.

As for Ireland, I am trying not to tempt fate. An incredibly difficult group makes it hard to see how they can advance. That said, I think they will acquit themselves well and, in one game at least, provide more excitement than many people expect. Four points from the three games would be a good tournament, even if it proves to not be enough to get through.

Posted by Oliver Farry

Tagged , , , , , ,

Group C – the real group of death?

While Group B is certainly the most fearsome looking group in this year’s Euros, Group C, involving holders Spain, Italy, Croatia and Ireland, could end up being the most closely contested. I will also say in advance it is almost impossible to call. That might seem a strange statement, given most people would see Spain and Italy as the natural teams to progress. I don’t, however, think it is going to be so straightforward.

On the face of it, reigning World and European champions Spain should be a shoo-in for the quarter-finals. After all, their record in their last 43 competitive internationals is: won 40, drawn 1, lost 2. Both those defeats came in South Africa, to the USA in 2009 and to Switzerland a year later during the World Cup, both times Spain becoming unstuck against defensive sides. Spain’s friendly results over the past two years have not been impressive but they will not have too much of a bearing on what happens in Poland. What will have a bearing however is the physical and mental fatigue of the Spanish players and who they face in their first match.

Spain do not like playing the Italians. The penalty shoot-out win over Italy in Vienna in Euro 2008 is widely credited with being the psychological barrier that had to be overcome for Spain to finally succeed in a major tournament after four decades of underachievement. But now, in hindsight, you look back at it and the long years without a win against Italy loom even more impressively. However fortifying that quarter-final victory might have been at the time, Spain are still without a win in open play against the Italians since the years of the Spanish Republic — if you are talking about competitive fixtures, you have to go back to the consolation round of the Antwerp Olympics in 1920 when la Roja scored a 2-0 victory over their Mediterranean rivals. That record probably does not figure too prominently in the minds of Vicente del Bosque’s players but the difficulty of playing Italy no doubt does.

Though Cesare Prandelli favours a more expansive game than previous managers of the Azzurri, I expect a return to pragmatism in the opening match. He has had any amount of defensive headaches with the expulsion of Domenico Criscito after being arrested over match-fixing allegations and Andrea Barzagli is out of the group matches. Barzagli’s absence robs Prandelli of a Juventus pairing in central defence — Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, playing in front of Gianluigi Buffon, conceded only 20 goals in Serie A last season. Italy were also alarmingly lax at the back in the 3-0 defeat to Russia last Friday. In Gdansk on Sunday though there will be far less space given to Spain’s attackers.

Spain are not unused to playing against, and beating, such compact formations over the past two years but Italy are better equipped at hitting them on the counter than most other teams that have parked the bus. The opening match is one that Spain are unlikely to kill off at any stage — the danger will be forever live, even if they do take the lead. Personally, I think the only chance of a Spanish victory is if they stun the Italians with successive blows early on, much as they did in the early days of tiki-taka before teams adapted by shutting up shop — think of how they destroyed Ukraine so easily in World Cup 2006 and Russia at the Euros two years later. I don’t think that is going to happen. The two teams played an entertaining friendly in Naples last August, Italy being the better side and running out 2-1 winners. The match this time will be a more frustrating affair to watch — not as dour as the game in Vienna four years ago, but one where it will be a battle over who masters the tension the quickest.

If Spain take a point off the Italians, they’re in good stead to progress, probably to the semi-finals at least. If they lose, things become more complicated. Still, a defeat in the opening game against Switzerland two years was quickly compensated for. Spain also, on paper, would be expected to beat both Ireland and Croatia, but they will have their own fatigue to contend with. Spain’s players have played, on average 58 games per season since Euro 2008, well more than any other competing team’s squads other than England. Xavi has played an average of 66 game per season. Barcelona’s fatigue was apparent in that catastrophic week in April where two defeats and a draw cost them both their La Liga and Champions League titles. Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia also had long, intensive seasons. Barça looked refreshed when they swept Athletic aside to win the Copa del Rey final but the fact that match was played two weeks before the start of the Euros does not help things either. If the second match against the Irish drags on scoreless, the morale of the Spanish team will be gradually pecked away. They could be left needing a win against Croatia in the final game and a favourable result in the Italy-Ireland game for them to go through.

Some people have suggested Spain will experience an implosion similar to France at the 2002 World Cup, mainly because both sides have entered a tournament as double World and European champions. Spain will not be abject like the French though — France had the disadvantage of not having played any competitive games other than the Confederations Cup for the previous two years. They were also far more reliant on an absent Zinedine Zidane than Spain are on any single player, even Xavi or Iniesta. If things do go sour for Spain, it will be more in the manner of past Spanish disappointments, where they get frustrated on match day three, similar to World Cup 1998 and Euro 2004, and what so nearly happened in Euro 2000, when they miraculously pulled off a 4-3 win over Yugoslavia at the death. I am not predicting an early exit for Spain in the first round but neither am I saying it would be entirely unexpected.

I think Italy will do well at this tournament, despite injury worries and the return of betting scandals (though the shadow of such scandals only served to brace the side for victory in 1982 and 2006). Italy though also have to make do with two teams they don’t relish playing. Italy have yet to beat Croatia since the latter’s independence (the record is two draws and three wins for Croatia) and the Croatians do not tire of pointing this out. Their only previous meeting in a major tournament was at World Cup 2002 when Croatia, who had an otherwise poor tournament, came from behind to beat Giovanni Trapattoni’s men 2-1. Slaven Bilic’s team are likely to hit Italy on the break in this match; though the loss of Ivica Olic to injury is a severe blow, Nikica Jelavic is as dangerous a man in the box as any in this tournament, even if his international form has not been as stellar as for his club. Italy may have to settle for a draw in this game, a result that may not please either side. The final game against the Irish will be either a titanic battle to advance from the group or it will be a game where a draw might suit either team. If Ireland and Italy go into the match on four points each with the other two teams trailing on one, they might well decide a draw to be mutually beneficial. Ireland have a decent record against Italy under Trapattoni but not too much should be read into it either. Italy were hampered by an unjust early sending-off in the World Cup qualifier in Bari three years ago which finished 1-1 while the 2-0 win in Liège last year was a friendly in which Ireland were fairly heavily overwhelmed in the opening period. The World Cup qualifier at Croke Park in October 2009, which finished 2-2, is probably the best indicator of how the game might go, though don’t expect that many goals.

Trapattoni will not be too happy facing Croatia in the first game, as the fear of starting with a defeat will hamper attacking against Ireland’s most beatable opponents. Slaven Bilic has been making sounds about Ireland being the match Croatia aim to win and you can’t blame him for doing so. It will however force him to set aside his favoured counter-attacking game. Last August in Dublin Croatia outpassed Ireland (in a game, coincidentally, played on the same night as Italy v Spain) without seriously troubling their hosts. They are expected to swop their regular 4-4-2 for a 4-2-3-1 with Jelavic a lone man up front. Giovanni Trapattoni has belatedly acknowledged Ireland’s problems in dealing with a three-man midfield and has suggested he might drop Robbie Keane back to cover, something his critics have been long clamouring for. Keane’s positional sense is not the best, of course, but the simple geometry of three men against two means that an extra body needs to be in there to break things up.

Ireland’s difficulties against technical sides has led many to predict doom for them in this tournament but if Trap can make them more disruptive in the centre of the field results are within their grasp. The defence is solid with eleven clean sheets in fourteen games unbeaten, though Stephen Ward is not always so steady at left-back. Going forward, Ireland are one-dimensional, with pretty much everything serviced through the wings. When confidence is high though, the team does create more chances. What has become frustrating of late is Trapattoni’s insistence on sticking with Kevin Doyle up front when the Wexford man is clearly out of sorts. It has been striking how rejuvenated Ireland’s attack becomes when either of Jonathan Walters, Simon Cox or Shane Long is introduced. It’s encouraging to have that in reserve but you really have to question the wisdom of not starting either Walters or Long. Ireland have a tendency to surrender play for long passages and at the Euro chances will be much thinner on the ground (we could well be playing without the ball for the duration of the Spain game). If we end up playing with a lone man up front, an out-of-form Doyle is probably not the man to be entrusted with the job. As an Ireland fan I am being realistic about our chances. I don’t expect it to be a disaster but getting out of the group is going to be incredibly difficult. Four points from the three game is not beyond us and would be a creditable return from a tough group. I worry though that it might not be enough to progress, especially given Ireland’s difficulty scoring goals, Robbie Keane’s 53 notwithstanding.

I expect Italy to win the group, possibly with as few as five points. It will then be up to the other three sides to battle it out for second place — ridiculous as it sounds to be lumping Spain in among those three. The playing order is vital and, to be honest, suits the Italians and the Croatians best. If Spain maintain their morale, even after a defeat in the opening game, they should take second place. If doubt begins to set in, to accompany an already worrying dearth of hunger among the players, they will be on an early plane home. Croatia fancy their chances in their opening two games and will have a great opportunity of going through if they face Spain with four points already under their belt. Ireland’s best opportunities of picking up points look to be in their first and third games, meaning they will be going right down to the wire. Of all the groups, this is the one that could well finish with all four teams on four points, just as happened in World Cup 1994 when Ireland and Italy were also in the same group. Even then, I suspect there will be precious little to separate the four sides.

Posted by Oliver Farry

Tagged , , , , ,