- Euro 2012 - Group C
Ireland hope for shock win against Spain
After the optimism and loud high spirits that heralded Ireland's first appearance in the final stages of a major tournament for a decade, things went decidedly flat in the opening Euro 2012 group game against Croatia.
Giovanni Trapattoni's side had been lauded for their defensive discipline in qualifying, but it didn't take long for that to begin unravelling. Three minutes in, Mario Mandzukic capitalised on utter confusion and, although Ireland equalised through Sean St Ledger, another chaotic goal before the break and an in-off the unlucky Shay Given minutes into the second half sealed the outcome.
The anticlimax was heightened by the awareness that, with no points on the Group C board and Spain and Italy to come, life could only get horribly difficult. Ireland failed to offer much real threat to the Croatia defence - set pieces their best bet - and it's possible that the bustling industry of Jon Walters, who replaced Kevin Doyle up front, could be used from the start this time. If that turns out to be the case, the Stoke man could do with more consistent service from the wings than that provided by the flickering Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff in Poznan.
There's no realistic way that Ireland can hope to contain Spain - they may as well have a go at them. Nobody in the Ireland camp is writing this one off, with skipper Robbie Keane saying: "It's a major tournament - anything can happen. There is no reason to believe that we can't get a result." That's a sentiment echoed by Trapattoni's assistant, Marco Tardelli, who employed a bit of fairytale imagery when he said: "You might think we are the Cinderella of the group - but we are not. We believe. We will go out onto the pitch to win the match. The mood is perfect."
Cinderella or not, Ireland will be trying to defy the odds and give themselves a chance of going to the ball against a Spain side that dispensed with the old hat idea of fielding a recognised striker when they drew with Italy, instead opting to start Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva as attackers and leaving Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo on the bench. Fabregas levelled against Italy moments after Vicente del Bosque's team had gone behind, but public opinion in Spain seems to be that the Spanish looked better once Torres (who missed a couple of good chances) had come on.
That, however, cuts no ice with Del Bosque, who has indicated that he could employ the same approach against Ireland. Blessed as he is with a wealth of technically brilliant players who can carve through opponents whatever their nominal role may be, he can happily afford to. "Against Ireland we will play a number nine, though it depends on what you understand by a number nine," he said, artily. "David Silva is a forward. Andres Iniesta plays like one. So does Cesc. We have four options: the three everyone is aware of [Torres, Llorente and Negredo] and then that of Cesc. Those are all very good attacking solutions. I am not unhappy with the options we have."
Spain player to watch: Cesc Fabregas. The big number nine (depending, of course, on what you understand by a big number nine) can float around causing elegant havoc, pop up with goals and produce devastating passing whatever the tactics Del Bosque employs.
Ireland player to watch: Keith Andrews. Andrews will have his work cut out. Although Spain only occasionally found real rhythm against Italy, Andrews' industry will be needed to help disrupt their passing and movement, and he can also (as he showed against Croatia) get forward for efforts at goal.
Key battle: Richard Dunne v Spain's chosen attacking options. Dunne has voiced his disappointment with the side's defending against Croatia and his determination to put it right. In the heart of defence, his capacity for brave blocks and last-ditch challenges is likely to be given a thorough examination.
Stat: Spain have kept clean sheets in eight of their last 12 meetings against Ireland.
Trivia: The two sides have met only once before in a major tournament, with Spain prevailing on penalties in the 2002 World Cup.
Odds: Spain (1.25), the draw (6.00) and Ireland (13.00) are on offer with bet365 while a 3-0 win for the Spanish is available at 6.50.
Prediction: Ireland are desperate to make up for the disappointment of the Croatia game, and they'll have plenty of determination and fighting spirit, but it's hard to see anything other than a comfortable Spain victory.