Preview: Ireland v Spain

It’s one percent excitement and 99 percent dread.

It’s one percent excitement and 99 percent dread.

The Spain versus Ireland game will be hard to look at. The whole set-piece is the closest we’ll ever get to that ‘imagine if Barcelona play Stoke’ fantasy. One can imagine watching with cringing trepidation as Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso paint their pretty pictures on the pitch, mesmerising our honest lummoxes, and ridiculing our pretensions to being even a modest football nation.

But perhaps Ireland, with the manager’s relentless focus on the ‘little details’ in defence and his pathological unwillingness to take any risks in search of a goal, are as well-equipped as anyone to stifle Spain. Switzerland were hardly overburdened with silky attacking players and they scraped an, admittedly slightly surreal, win over Spain at the 2010 World Cup. Their goal in that game proved that Spain are vulnerable to long boots up field, which, I hardly need to tell you, will come as fantastic news to Ireland.

The only sadness being that our chief playmaker and creative force from the glorious late 1980s/early 1990s period, Packie Bonner, is no longer around. Shay Given, the stats tell us, lacks Packie’s incisiveness, though maybe he just lacks Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino.

England even managed to beat Spain, albeit in a friendly, in Wembley last year, setting a world record for passes back to their goalkeeper in the process, a tacit admission of creative bankruptcy. Ireland, for their part, declared creative bankruptcy a long time ago, and Trapattoni appears to have appointed himself liquidator. Irish supporters will be heartened to learn that creative bankruptcy is not necessarily a total hindrance in this fixture. In fact, those with pretensions to creativity are probably the most vulnerable against Spain.

However, another sadness emerges, when one remembers that in 1992, FIFA decided to screw over British-style football teams (a category to which we sadly belong) when they banned goalkeepers picking up back-passes, thereby outlawing one of the undoubted jewels of the game; the panicky, but almost risk-free, pass back to the goalkeeper when under pressure, a practice which contributed to making Italia 90 the spectacle it was.

Another chink of light is that Spain, when set alongside other world beaters from times gone by, aren’t the most prolific goalscorers. There is a large preponderance of 1-0 and 2-0 wins, and the odd 0-0, as teams sit 10 men in front of them and the Spaniards grow excessively enchanted by their own pleasing patterns, intoxicated by their own slinky artistry. One happy occurrence would be if Spain fall so in love with holding on to the ball that they forget to pursue the back of our net. That their midfield fall into one of their sleepy, self-indulgent moods and don’t wish to surrender the possession they enjoy so much by doing something so crude as having a pop at goal.

Given that Spain, for all their other qualities, hassle and harry like rabid dogs when they don’t have the ball, and our boys are capable of losing the ball when their only opponents are traffic cones, Ireland will no doubt forget about possession. Trapattoni will probably have drilled into them that even having it at all will leave us unacceptably vulnerable to a counter-attack. The motto isn’t so much, ‘If they don’t have the ball they can’t score’ as ‘if we don’t have the ball, we can’t lose it in an awkward position.’ Whereas every Spain player lovingly strokes the ball with relaxed assurance, every Irish attempt to string a few passes together in our own half is a breathless high-wire act.

Trapattoni is unwilling to risk flighty ball players like James McClean and Seamus Coleman at home to Armenia and Macedonia so he is unlikely to have any use for them against Spain. (And Andy Reid, who I briefly thought would be nominated for World Player of the Year in 2009, despite, nay because, he hadn’t kicked a ball for us all year, will of course see no action). Even the most ambitious and purist-minded of Ireland’s followers have accepted we will be unashamedly crude against Spain. We will have to set about them, disrupt them, like drunken hooligans invading the stage at the Royal Ballet.

Trap’s main mantra as Ireland manager has been vigilance about the ‘little details.’ This focus involves obsessing over such hobby horses as defenders positioning for opposing throw-ins, issuing reminders to players to waste time wherever possible, etc. The ‘little details’, for those connoisseurs of RTE’s soccer coverage, are what John Giles used to refer to when asking the technical people to ‘pause it there’ before pointing to a central midfielder who was marginally out of position, and blaming the subsequent misfortunes on him, stating ‘It looks like nothing…’ The effect of this focus on the ‘little details’ has been to refine the side’s defensive concentration more generally. Despite the nerve-induced lapses against Croatia, the fact remains that Ireland still went eight games without conceding a goal in the middle of 2011.

Trapattoni played for AC Milan under legendary manager Nereo Rocco who reputedly said once ‘Let’s hope it’s a good game but that the better team loses.’ Trapattoni no doubt gets a kick out of such an attitude. Ireland’s (pre-Croatia) defensive solidity, doggedness, workmanlike nature, newly-found cynicism and awareness of their own limitations make them ideal candidates to stifle the all-conquering Spaniards.