|Ireland saw its hopes end against Spain. (AP photo)|
There was plenty to believe in before Ireland played Spain in the Euro 2012 tournament in Poland Thursday. Although the odds were stacked enormously against the Irish, playing against one of the best teams in the world, anything can happen at this stage of a major soccer tourney, especially given the desperation that resided with the Ireland players and supporters.
Beat Spain and not only would the Irish erase a terrible loss to Croatia in the first game of group play, but would give them a tremendous shot at advancing to the knockout round, the final eight of the tournament. There was optimism that a miracle could happen.
That optimism lasted four minutes.
Spain took advantage of some poor defense and Fernando Torres fired an open shot past goalkeeper Shay Given for the lead and what turned out to be the game. Spain won 4-0, scoring three goals in the second half, and eliminated Ireland from possible advancement. Ireland still plays Italy Monday.
So, what went wrong during this extremely short stay in the Euro tournament, where Ireland lost two games in a row for the first time ever in a major tournament and were completely outclassed on the pitch Thursday?
The biggest problem is Ireland can't create scoring opportunities. Forget about shots on goal, Ireland can't even get close to the opposing team's net. Their play has bordered on complete boredom, where the Irish players don't even seem to be interested in scoring goals. That was obvious during the loss to Spain, where Ireland managed just two shots on goal, and posed zero threat to score.
Ireland's strength is scoring off set pieces, but the team isn't even good enough right now to create those plays. The offense is so pedestrian they can't even draw penalties within a reasonable distance of the goal.
Captain Robbie Keane is a great finisher, and has been one of the all-time greats for Ireland soccer, but he isn't the same striker he was just a few years ago. This was most likely his final major tournament appearance in an Ireland uniform.
Keane, of course, had no help in this tournament. No Irish starter could be counted on to make plays in the offensive end. Possibly James McClean is the player of the future, but only time will tell if his talent translates into a true scoring threat for the national team.
Right now, offense is a foreign language to most on the team.
Giovanni Trapattoni is a fine coach and what he did bringing Ireland to this stage should be applauded. This, remember, was the first major tournament the Irish have played in since the 2002 World Cup. That's a decade ago and Trapattoni put an end to the drought with superb coaching throughout qualification, where it appeared the Irish could do some damage in this tournament. Many even had them advancing along with Spain, bringing tons and tons of high hopes for the Ireland supporters.
That decade-long space between appearances and high expectations also makes this short stay all the more frustrating, and Trapattoni could very well be gone when the tourney ends for real on Monday.
Going forward, Ireland absolutely must become a team capable of scoring goals, or at the least, creating consistent opportunities. The defensive brand of soccer may have worked in qualification, but it was exposed against some of the best teams in the world here at the Euro tournament. Croatia scored three goals and Spain scored four, both embarrassing numbers.
Yes, Ireland's team strength is defense, but that wasn't evident in group play. The Ireland defense played poorly against Croatia and again against Spain, allowing Torres to gain possession of the ball in the box and score the first goal and then three defenders couldn't stop a shot by David Silva from close range just four minutes into the second half. Given had nearly zero shot to save either goal.
Ireland's defense was as indecisive with the ball as the offense was, and that was a death blow. If Ireland isn't going to score, they need the defense to produce clean sheets on the other end.
Of course, it would be nice if that wasn't always the way for Ireland soccer. Maybe a new coach can come in and bring a completely different style of play. Now would be the perfect time to do it as well, with the team fresh off a qualification to the second best international tournament in the world. Starting fresh could be the one thing that turns the tide for Ireland soccer.
I know this current brand isn't something I or anyone else wants to sit through.
This tournament was also the likely end for Given, the longtime Irish goalkeeper. In our keys to the match, we pointed to Given as having to have the game of his life against Spain. He may not have done that, but Given was more than solid, making 11 saves, including one on a full-out dive to stop a sure Spain goal from close range. If Given moves on, at least he can say he did his best.
There's going to be a lot of changes in store for Ireland soccer in the coming weeks and months. The major players back in that 2002 World Cup loss to Spain in penalty kicks were still major players in this tournament a decade later. The time for a new influx of talent is here.
Hopefully the Football Association of Ireland makes the right decisions and puts together a team that just isn't good enough for qualification, but can challenge for a championship as well.
The ball is on their foot now.