DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s chances of Euro 2012 success will hinge on whether they can penetrate, and not simply frustrate, their more illustrious group opponents.
Up against three of the world’s top 12 sides, Giovanni Trapattoni’s resolute and hardworking charges, drawn mainly from the English Premier League’s less-fashionable clubs, will be favourites to prop up Group C.
But the experienced Italian has built a tough team since taking charge three years ago and has lost only once in the last two major championship qualification campaigns - a record bettered only by Germany and two of Ireland’s group rivals, Spain and Italy.
Their other Group C opponents Croatia, who they face in their opening game in Poznan on June 10, played in Dublin in a friendly last August. Like many talented teams before them, they could only draw.
That stalemate marked the second unbeaten game in a run that now stretches to 14 and in which the Irish, appearing in their first major tournament for a decade, have conceded just four times.
Marshalled at the back by 121-times capped goalkeeper Shay Given and Aston Villa team mate, centre-back Richard Dunne, Ireland are led by captain and record goal scorer Robbie Keane.
The LA Galaxy striker scored seven goals during Ireland’s passage to Ukraine and Poland, bringing his total international haul to 53 and putting him among the top 20 international goal scorers of all time, ahead of the likes of Thierry Henry, Bobby Charlton and David Villa.
Yet Keane’s consistent strike-rate, complemented by the still dangerous wingplay of Damien Duff, cannot conceal that Ireland will be among the least creative sides at the finals.
Hampered by an ordinary centre midfield partnership in Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan and West Bromwich Albion’s Keith Andrews, Ireland go long periods without threatening in the final third.
That soft centre can leave them liable to being overrun on occasion as Russia found out when they raced to a 3-0 lead inside 50 minutes in Dublin at the start of the last campaign, although the Irish did later score twice.
That was their only defeat in their 10 qualifiers, which set them up for a playoff against Estonia, who they duly despatched 5-1 on aggregate to reach the finals.
Ireland have also struggled to beat higher-ranked teams under Trapattoni. Despite finishing ahead of Bulgaria and Slovakia in World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 qualifying, they were unable to beat either at home or away.
The one exception, over 90 minutes at least, was when they led France 1-0 at the end of normal time in Paris two-and-a-half years ago when Henry’s infamous handball in the build-up to France’s equaliser evened the scores after extra time and sent France to the World Cup in South Africa.
No team has ever reached the knockout stages of the European championships on draws alone so Ireland will need at least one repeat of those 90 minutes in Paris to make progress.
The reality is, that even with Trapattoni’s influence, that will hard to achieve, especially against the world champions and his own countrymen.
Still, Ireland are more resolute and self-confident than they used to be, as evidenced by their 0-0 draw in Moscow in the qualifiers and the emphatic way they beat Estonia 4-0 in the first leg of their playoff.
Whether those qualities will be enough to see them through though, is another matter.
Editing by Mitch Phillips