28 Jan 2022

Preview: Ireland v Italy

In the delusional pre-tournament giddiness, the feeling about the Italy match was that it represented a chance for Ireland to get a result, writes Conor Neville.

In the delusional pre-tournament giddiness, the feeling about the Italy match was that it represented a chance for Ireland to get a result, writes Conor Neville.

In pub-chat everywhere, supporters were loudly trumpeting their quiet confidence about this game. This air of quiet confidence became deafening. This can tend to happen when a team find themselves in a difficult group. When people have mentally written off one of the games, say, for instance, the one against Spain, the other games immediately come to be regarded as a relative opportunity. The games against Italy and Croatia were thus elevated, if not to the status of ‘must win’ games, then at least to the status of ‘must get a draw at least’ games.

This has not gone well. Everyone knew this team had limitations, what we didn’t expect was that they’d add some more at the Euros. Conceding scrappy, silly goals was not something they were supposed to do. Hopefully Ireland will go at least five minutes of at least one of the halves of this tournament without conceding.

There’s little to be said about this game from an Irish point of view. You would think we’ll be reduced to a bracing, seat-of-the-pants, ‘give it a lash’ style game-plan, an attitude the supporters would urge, but the manager’s capacity for caution knows no bounds. No matter how broken, hopeless and desperate his side’s position is, he always feels he has something to lose. No matter the scenario, he always, no doubt after tortuous examination, comes to the conclusion that a rigid 4-4-2, with two midfield scrappers and attack-shy full backs is the only course.

Trapattoni has done some good things as Ireland manager, and some deeply annoying things. His supporters, and most foreign observers who regard him as having worked wonders getting us here with average footballers, argue that the type of football Ireland have played in the past four years is the only style which will get us to championships. Those of romantic disposition will wonder whether it is even worth it.

Trapattoni didn’t ‘work wonders’ to get us here, he got us to the runners-up spot in our (not very difficult) qualifying group, a position to which we’re hardly unaccustomed, and then we got an extraordinarily fortuitous draw in the play-offs. But the European press regard him as an indisputably great man and like their narrative of wily, successful, old, Italian coach whipping a bunch of useless Irish cloggers into shape and bringing them to the finals.

Ultimately Trapattoni is beside the point. Long-term, Ireland needs to start producing players, and this is not his responsibility. He makes do with what is fed through to him. The Spanish method of playing football is a long time in the gestation. It didn’t come by hiring a cynical, successful Italian manager and hoping he’d get them where they wanted to go.

This match will give nerds the excuse to examine Trapattoni’s miserable record with the Italian national side between 2000 and 2004. Eamon Dunphy said after Ireland qualified that Trapattoni might chill out about needing two lung-bursting defensive midfielders and encourage a more artistic game from Ireland. An examination of Trapattoni’s time in charge of the Italian side demonstrated just how fanciful that idea always was. Even with a team containing Totti, Pirlo, Del Piero and Cassano, Italy played hideously ugly football, including one astonishingly negative display against Denmark in their opening match of Euro 2004. The Italian attackers looked unhappy, and the journalists were none too impressed, but Trapattoni didn’t appear overly distressed by the 0-0 draw.

We reckoned, in our shrewdness, that Italy had a more rickety side than usual this time. They contain, unusually for them, a few players most Irish football fans wouldn’t have heard of, Udinese and Brescia outliers. Their previous manager, Lippi, distrusted big personalities for the effect they had on his team’s cohesion, thus he didn’t pick either Balotelli or Cassano. Excitedly, both of them are starting up front together in this tournament, hopefully going toe-to-toe in a crazy-off this summer.

However, Italy are generally popular, because of the sense of drama they seem to able to create about themselves (wildly gesticulating players, Tardelli-like screams), their philosophical, highly intellectualised approach to football, as well as (for Nineties children) the memory of James Richardson leafing through the Corriele della Sport in Italian cafés. They cantered through their qualifying group for Euro 2012 though it wasn’t a particularly difficult one. As if to prove this, Estonia were able to clamber into second place.

However, Italy’s most significant result in the last couple of years by far, was their monumental 2-0 loss in a friendly against Ireland. This was our second ever victory over the Italians. The previous victory is a rather notable one. It is illegal under Irish law to refer to the 1-0 win over Italy in the Giant’s Stadium in 1994 without referring to Paul McGrath as a ‘colossus’ (just as it’s a statutory offence to talk about Roy Keane’s career for any length without mentioning the 3-2 win over Juventus in 1999, ‘He already knew he was out of the final…’). Other iconic images are the one of the strangest goals ever scored, Steve Staunton’s ridiculous hat, and Tommy Coyne, Ireland’s lone striker in the heat, almost dying from exhaustion.

Those glory days are unlikely to be resurrected today. We’ve spent years jeering at England over their ludicrous pre-tournament hyping. It’s ironic that the one year they decide to eschew it, we fall prey to it. But I don’t regret getting carried away beforehand though. There’s no point being miserable before the thing as well.

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