Ireland in trouble as France fail to fall for Trap
An unpalatable helping of reality was served up to Giovanni Trapattoni and his Ireland team at Croke Park on Saturday night and changing the tide now flowing against them in their World Cup play-off with France may now be impossible.
Being in Dublin ahead of the first leg of a much-anticipated fixture allowed you to sample a level of euphoria the football-loving public of Ireland have not experienced for the best part of a decade. Indeed, the lengthy wait for the 'Boys in Green' to enjoy some success made their brush with qualification this time seem all the more thrilling and many believed the Gallic confrontation was laced with positive destiny for Trapattoni.
With posters of the veteran Italian manager posted around Dublin and every Irish newspaper hyping up the game on their front and back pages, the air of expectation as the green, white and gold hordes made their way to the magnificent temporary home of the Irish soccer team was palpable.
Reports suggesting that France skipper Thierry Henry and his despised coach Raymond Domenech had been involved in a training ground bust-up on the eve of the game cranked up the Irish expectations still further and the mood of optimism could not even be burst in the first 45 minutes of a game that, on paper, had the potential to become a messy mismatch.
Few inside an electrified Croker were surprised to see the French display more composure on the ball and a higher skill level in the opening quarter of this four-chapter tale and yet Ireland could claim to be ahead on points as Trapattoni addressed his troops at the break.
Even the usually cynical RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy dared to offer faint praise at the break as he lauded Ireland's commendable workrate, yet the second half saw the tie revert to a more predictable script. Even though luck was with France as Nicolas Anelka's deflected shot gave the visitors a crucial 1-0 victory, Domenech's side had earned their fortune after taking control of the second half with nonchalant ease.
Cue the backlash. In a nation filled with experts who delight in telling Trapattoni where he is going wrong, the post-mortem of his biggest failure yet was always likely to be gruesome and Dunphy and company did not disappoint as they passed damning verdicts.
Il Trap's favoured sons such as Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews and Liam Lawrence are unlikely to be inducted into football's Hall of Fame any time soon, but this coach deserves credit for moulding their modest talents into a team that has flirted with the ultimate qualification success.
Instead, criticism has been tossed in Trapttoni's direction and, as Ireland's limitations were exposed in graphic fashion on Saturday night, those doubters were not going to miss their moment to plunge the knife in.
This Ireland team has not gone a goal behind too often during Trapattoni's reign, but they were sadly lacking a plan B once they conceded on Saturday and Dunphy suggested in typically passionate fashion that the overlooked Sunderland winger Andy Reid could have been the man to make the difference.
"This Ireland team have been put in a tactical straight-jacket by this coach and they will win nothing playing in such a negative manner," he barked, in the rugged and animated style that has made him such a captivating if overly critical analyst. "France were hopeless at Croke Park and were there for the taking, but we did not give our players a chance to have a go at them because they are forced to play this rigid system that does not allow them to attack an opponent. I feel sorry for the Irish lads because they worked hard, but this manager has blunted their ambitions with his tactics and his refusal to pick an in-form midfielder in Andy Reid."
Former Ireland manager John Giles was equally unflattering after witnessing Trapattoni's first competitive defeat in the role. "Our opponents didn't have to play well as we gave the ball away far too much and made it easy for France," he said. "I can't remember Whelan or Andrews making a significant pass for the entire 90 minutes and it's impossible to play matches at this level with a midfield that cannot hold onto the ball and make good use of it. You can't win this game without possession and that is why we have made life very difficult for ourselves in this tie."
It's hard to find any logical reason to suggest Ireland can turn around this World Cup play-off in Paris after they were comprehensively outplayed in front of their imposing home crowd, but former Ireland international John Aldridge looked for a silver lining in his Sunday World column.
"The positive we can take is the French advantage is only one goal and sometimes teams can sit back on a lead when it is so narrow," he wrote. "I remember my Liverpool team thinking we had won the English league title back in 1989 when Arsenal needed to beat us 2-0 at Anfield. Well, we didn't play as we can and they famously pulled off the miracle. We can all hope Ireland do the same."
Trapattoni was the calmest man in town as his familiar cast of pessimistic detractors drowned out his post-match optimism. "It is all about trying to win 1-0 in Paris, as that would take the tie into extra-time and then everything is possible," he said in front of a less than convinced local media pack. "We will not change our tactics because there is no point in conceding goals in the second leg. Our opponents are obviously strong, but I felt 0-0 was the fair result in Dublin and it will come down to small details once again in the second game. I remain confident, even if my team is disappointed right now. Let's see what can happen in the second game."
The scuffle between French and Irish players shortly after the final whistle blew should ensure there is plenty of spice when the second leg kicks off in the Stade de France on Wednesday night and Ireland will know they need to score first if they are to raise their seemingly shattered spirits.
Celtic's Aiden McGeady could be employed as a more attacking option on the right flank in Paris, but Trapattoni is likely to send the same 11 troops into battle for a mission that only a very few now believe is possible.
However, should Ireland fail to reach the World Cup finals, neither the manager nor his heroic players should be castigated for their near miss. If this team of proud Irishmen fail to overcome a team blessed with better players in every position bar one, shame is not a word that should be attached to them. In fact, shame may be more suitably sprinkled on those Irish 'patriots' who would revel in the failure they have long predicted for Trapattoni and his over-achieving team.