Spain’s sizeable Barcelona contingent may be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu when they face the Republic of Ireland today in their second Group B match at Euro 2012.
Just as Barca did in the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea, the European and world champions are likely to spend huge chunks of the game with the ball at their feet, plotting and scheming a way through a forest of opposing defenders.
Ireland’s intentions will be even more limited than those of Chelsea, who somehow managed to score three times against the Catalans over two legs, having spent most of the tie watching the ball fizz around in front of them.
After misfiring in a 1-1 draw against Italy, when coach Vicente del Bosque refrained from using a specialist striker until Chelsea’s unlikely Camp Nou hero Fernando Torres came on 15 minutes from time, Spain desperately need a win.
The prospect of a green barricade in front of them in Gdansk could be the source of unease, even more so because of the recent trend favoring teams who sit back in their own half and soak up punishment.
Chelsea also did it against Bayern Munich in the final, Denmark succeeded with it against the Netherlands and England, to a lesser extent, used the tactic against France as they eked out a 1-1 draw.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” tactics that slowly extinguished George Foreman’s fire all those years ago seem to be catching on and Ireland will be hoping to avoid a knockout blow after a 3-1 loss to Croatia.
Spain midfielder Sergio Busquets, one of the Barca players driven to distraction by Chelsea, knows exactly what to expect.
“Patience will be key,” he told reporters at Spain’s training base in Gniewino, Poland, on Tuesday. “The most important thing is our style and philosophy. We will try to control possession and play the ball around quickly. Hopefully, we can score an early goal to settle ourselves and maybe then they will have to open up a bit more.”
Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland are 10-1 with bookmakers to win the game, but Busquets warned against predictions of a one-sided contest.
“In the finals of a competition like this no team will gift you anything and there are not going to be any thrashings handed out,” he said. “At the last World Cup, for example, the matches were decided by one goal.”
Trapattoni, Ireland’s wily 73-year-old coach, expects Spain to operate with a striker, probably in the form of Torres, a former Liverpool teammate of Ireland’s record scorer Robbie Keane.
“He is a great player and great guy too,” Keane said at Ireland’s training base in Gydnia, Poland. “I’m not sure if he will play, but whether he does or they play with six midfielders it doesn’t matter because they have so much quality in their side.”
Keane saw parallels between Chelsea’s task and Ireland’s.
“We know it will be a tall order against one of the best teams in the world, but we are not going in believing that we are there to just make [up] the numbers,” said Keane, a survivor from the 2002 World Cup meeting between the sides when Spain won on penalties. “People expect Spain to win every game, but in football it doesn’t always happen.”