Anyone who found the manner of Chelsea’s Champions League triumph hard to digest is advised to look elsewhere when rank outsiders Ireland face Croatia in their Euro 2012 opener today.
Chelsea proved it is possible to overcome vastly more gifted opponents with well-organized blanket defense, the odd counter-attack and a generous portion of luck in their wins over Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
It remains to be seen how many of the 16 teams at Euro 2012 are tempted to emulate them, but Ireland are one side who will certainly try and do so.
Unbeaten in their last 14 matches, and having kept clean sheets in 11 of those, Ireland are likely to prove stubborn opponents for a Croatia team that features a number of ageing key players, and can look slow and predictable against tough defenses.
Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni has openly been calculating their chances of making the last 16 with only four points from their three games in a group which also includes Spain and Italy.
“The first results will be important. If it’s two draws, then it might be possible to qualify with four points,” he told UEFA’s official Web site, making no apologies for their style.
“We want to win, to play and to score goals. But our opponents are strong,” he said.
“I think of the final of the Champions League. Bayern had a lot more possession, they deserved to win, but lost of course and Chelsea created the best opportunity. Seventeen corners for Bayern, one corner for Chelsea — that is football,” he added.
Perhaps a fairer comparison would be with Paraguay, another small country whose team are anything but pretty to watch, but traditionally make life very uncomfortable for bigger neighbors such as Argentina and Brazil.
“We don’t have many creative players, but very straightforward players,” Trapattoni said.
“We have our own style of football,” he added.
“We are not a Latin team, not a team who play technically superior. We are a team with our own characteristics, which I like very much, very direct and precise,” he said.
Croatia, quarter-finalists in Austria and Switzerland four years ago, have qualified for seven out of nine major tournaments since the country gained independence in 1992.
Many of the Euro 2008 squad remain and form the backbone of the current team, in which goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, defenders Josip Simunic and Darijo Srna, midfielders Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric are regulars in coach Bilic’s preferred 4-4-2 formation.
Especially influential are 30-year-old captain Srna and playmaker Modric, who flourished at Tottenham Hotspur for most of this season until he and his team faltered in the closing stages of the campaign.
Coach Slaven Bilic has said he has a number of options up his sleeve, while Trapattoni surprised many by naming his team one week before the match.
Coincidentally, Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira did exactly the same thing when his team opened their 2006 World Cup campaign against Croatia.
Parreira’s side won 1-0, however a more likely omen for today’s match might be the most recent meeting between the teams in a friendly last August. It finished goalless.