Ireland v Croatia, June 10, 7.45pm
10 June ~ In the build-up to Euro 2012, TV, radio and online media outlets in Ireland have been pumping out non-stop nostalgia from previous adventures in major tournaments. All the signs are that the Irish football public is about to get a very real reminder of the scale of those adventures – the Republic have reached the knockout stages in three of the four tournaments they have played in. Although Giovanni Trapattoni's charges have now gone 14 games unbeaten ahead of today's game against Croatia, that run has seen some incredibly uncomfortable performances with thin margins separating victory and defeat.
Yet there are reasons to be optimistic for Irish fans, despite being drawn in a group featuring the current World and European champions Spain, along with Italy and Croatia. Trapattoni's adherence to a 4-4-2 formation, featuring two deep-lying midfielders and little to no overlapping from the full-backs, may see the team struggle against middling or poor opposition but has proved remarkably effective in frustrating technically superior teams. Chelsea's disciplined defensive performances in winning the Champions League were cited more than once within the media as cause for optimism for Ireland.
Croatia's preparations have not been the smoothest. An injury to striker Ivica Olic was also hailed as a blow by coach Slaven Bilic, even though he is likely to be replaced by the in-form Nikola Jelavic of Everton. Bilic himself has become a significant figure within Ireland in the run-up to the game, giving several interviews to press, naturally emphasising his respect for Ireland's spirit and togetherness.
Few would doubt the Irish team's ability to frustrate or Croatia's relative vulnerability but even the most optimistic of pundits would struggle to name exactly where a victory is likely to come from, with goal-scoring not appearing high on Trap's priorities. If a public criticism of his strikers after a scoreless draw against Hungary in a friendly on Monday was an unexpected move from the manager, the content of his criticism (he wants them to track back more) wasn't. And while the team are now highly skilled at "parking the bus", they rarely have anywhere near the defensive composure or attacking edge which characterised Chelsea's European run.
Amid all the hype, casual Irish fans tuning in to the team's campaign will soon have to face the fact that this tournament will not be pleasant to watch compared to the high pressing game of the Charlton era and the have-a-go heroics of Mick McCarthy's team in the 2002 World Cup. However any result against Croatia, regardless of what happens in the second game against Spain, may set the stage for a dramatic showdown with Trapattoni's Italian homeland in the final group game. Lee Daly @leedalyire