caption:Tommy Smyth gets excited in advance of the Republic of Ireland's Group C opener.
If you like your football tough and industrial, this clash will be your Super Bowl. Both Ireland and Croatia believe they are Group C’s dark horse, and will compensate for any shortcomings with a display of passionate collective endeavor.
What's on the line:
It's a fight between Group C’s potential Cinderella teams. Croatia hopes to repeat its darling run of Euro 2008 in which it was seconds away from making the semifinals. Since then, inconsistency has been its biggest burden, but coach Slaven Bilic hopes to enjoy one last hurrah before decamping to take the reins at Lokomotiv Moscow.Ireland, meanwhile, enters the tournament on a 14-match unbeaten run. It might lack world-class wattage (Shane Long, anyone?) but its fans simply cannot be beat for ebullience and will push Robbie Keane and company to progress. Legendary Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni has said his players are so well drilled “they can play with their eyes closed.” Irish fans no doubt believe him but would prefer their boys keep them open all the same.
Style and tactics:
Two traditional 4-4-2 formations will line up and attempt to pummel each other. May the best man win.Croatia will provide the more attack-minded threat, but because its central defenders are lumbering, Bilic prefers to play for the counter-attack, and it will be interesting to see what Croatia does with the vast tracts of territory the Irish will be content to cede in this game.
Ireland and Trapattoni emphasize hard-working, organized football, and robust defense is their first, second and third priority, while goals tend to come via agricultural means -- a long ball has been thumped toward a big striker. Thirty-six-year-old talismanic goalkeeper Shay Given beat a late fitness test to claim his place. He will be tested.
Players to watch:
Croatia: Impish midfielder Luka Modric will be the one world-class player on the field and will seek to shake off the exhaustion of a long, disappointing season at Tottenham Hotspur. Bilic has suggested Darijo Srna will charge down the flanks "like Robocop.” Everton’s Nikica Jelavic has proved to be a no-nonsense sniper from 6 yards out, and his trademark one-touch goals will prove to be even more crucial after Ivica Olic was forced to withdraw from the tournament because of injury.
Ireland: With veteran wrinklies 33-year-old Damien Duff and 31-year-old Robbie Keane providing Ireland’s offensive firepower, this team has the talent to win it all ... if it was still 2002. In defense, Richard Dunne appears to gain superpowers by pulling on the Irish jersey. The Premier League own-goal specialist can single-handedly keep opponents at bay. An ability that might come in handy.
What we can expect:
Croatia will have most of the ball, but Ireland will not make it easy for Croatia to create clear-cut chances in the final third. Few neutrals will be won over by the Irish style of play, but it is hard not to admire their endeavor and passion.
MLS fans will be particularly elated to see the L.A. Galaxy’s Keane trundle around Poland; Ireland’s all-time leading goal scorer is the league’s sole representative.
Then there's the man with the whistle. After Friday's controversies in the Poland versus Greece game, all eyes will be on the referee, and the match official, Dutchman Bjorn Kuipers, is not without concern. He's a co-owner of a number of supermarkets as well as a hair salon in his hometown but, more importantly, was the man responsible for gifting a Barcelona a controversial Champions League penalty against AC Milan this year.
This bruising battle could be one for purists who like their football raw and unpasteurized. The two teams played to a 0-all draw in Dublin this past August. While both will want to win, as games against Italy and reigning world champion Spain appear more challenging on paper, we could well be in for a repeat of that scoreline in Poznan.