On September 1, 2001, Jason McAteer scored one of the biggest goals in the history of Irish football. In the 68th minute of their ninth World Cup qualifying match, at home against the Netherlands, he found himself unmarked at the back post and finished past Edwin van der Sar. The crowd at Lansdowne Road went crazy. Ireland went on to win the game 1-0, creating a four-point gap between them and the Netherlands, inexplicably sending Ireland to the World Cup and the Netherlands crashing out of qualification. This was the last time Ireland made a major finals.
Giovanni Trappatoni has transformed the Irish national team since he took over the struggling side in 2008. They don't play beautiful football, but Trappatoni's tactical aptitude has a group of Championship and fringe Premiership players competing with the best sides in the world. They were controversially kept out of the World Cup in 2010 by the infamous Thierry Henry handball and subsequent France goal, but they didn't cut it close enough to leave their qualification up to a refereeing decision this time around. Ireland crushed Estonia 5-1 in the playoffs to qualify for Euro 2012.
Ireland might be clinging to the past a bit with their team selections, but if it isn't broke, why fix it? Robbie Keane has already departed Europe for the Los Angeles Galaxy -- where he hasn't played well this season -- but he's still first choice for Ireland. So are 33-year-old Damien Duff, 31-year-old Keith Andrews, 32-year-old Richard Dunne, 31-year-old John O'Shea and 36-year-old Shay Given. This is potentially the last major final for all of them. All of them are past their primes, but they've guided Ireland into the Euros.
What was once the young blood in the Ireland team isn't exactly young anymore. The youngest player in the team is James McClean, the 23-year-old Northern Ireland-born Sunderland star who recently declared his allegiance to the Republic of Ireland. He played seven times for Northern Ireland U-21 and played for Derry City in Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish don't like him too much. He's not even guaranteed a starting spot at the moment; the youngest Ireland starter will be either him or fellow winger Aiden McGeady, who recently turned 26.
Ireland have mostly favored a rigid 4-4-2 setup with inside-out wingers under Trappatoni's reign and there's no reason to believe that they're going to change their strategy. They have five strikers in their team and one of them, Jonathan Walters, has experience playing as a winger in a 4-4-2. All five strikers are likely to feature at some point in the tournament, but Kevin Doyle and Keane are the presumed first choice pairing. They've been the favored pair up top when both are healthy for nearly five years.
However, Shane Long could have something to say about that. He had a solid season for West Bromwich Albion with eight goals, including one on the final day of the Premier League season against Arsenal. He also scored Ireland's only goal in a 1-0 friendly win over Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday, on a day when Ireland were dominant but everyone but Long failed to finish clear chances. His combination of size and speed allows him to play with either Doyle or Keane (and he frequently partnered Doyle when both played for Reading), but he's more likely to replace Doyle than Keane. Even though Keane is aging and not in great form, he's still the team captain and Ireland's all-time leading scorer. Only injury is causing him to lose his place.
In Midfield, it appears that McGeady, Duff and McClean are fighting for two spots on the wings. McClean is easily the most in-form of the bunch, but he's not going to displace the two incumbents unless they play poorly. McGeady is coming off of an injury and came in as a substitute against Bosnia-Herzegovina, while McClean and Duff started. All three played well, and Trappatoni's decision is going to be a tough one. In the center, Andrews and Glenn Whelan are locked into their starting positions.
There's been a little bit of rotation at the back for Ireland, but Trappatoni's first choice back line seems fairly set in stone. O'Shea rested on Saturday while Darren O'Dea got the nod over Sean St. Ledger, but it would be surprising to see St. Ledger lose his spot in the team. Dunne is locked in at one central defense spot, Stephen Ward has claimed the left back spot and O'Shea should start at right back. Given will be behind them in goal, and he also rested on Saturday.
This Ireland team will be rigid, organized, tough to break down and dangerous on the counter for all of their opponents. Unfortunately, their lack of raw talent is likely to catch up to them. If Ireland were drawn as the Pot 4 team in either Group A or Group D, they would have a fighting chance of getting out of the group, but they drew the short straw with Group C. They'll probably need to find a way to get four or more points off of Spain, Italy and Croatia. Even Croatia, the one team that Ireland will be given a chance to beat, has world class players that Ireland don't. There simply isn't a Luka Modric or even a Darijo Srna among their ranks.
Ireland's path to the quarterfinals isn't a terribly far-fetched one. If they defeat Croatia, draw Italy and lose by one goal to Spain while Spain wins all of their games, their four points and goal differential might be good enough to see them through. Crazier things have happened. They are very much underdogs, though, and their fans will probably feel like they put together a good showing if they leave the Euros with more than one point from the group stages, whether that be from a victory over Croatia or multiple draws.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2)
GK Shay Given LB Stephen Ward CB Richard Dunne CB Sean St. Ledger RB John O'Shea LM Aiden McGeady CM Glenn Whelan CM Keith Andrews RM Damien Duff ST Robbie Keane ST Kevin Doyle
Robbie Keane: Keane hasn't looked good in Los Angeles this season, but he's still the key to Ireland's success. He's their captain and all-time leading scorer by a wide margin. He occasionally puts together performances composed of 89 minutes of absolute garbage, plus a goal. If Ireland is going to avoid a three-loss tournament, they will need Keane to score out of nothing once or twice.
Last in Group C: This is why Euro 2012 is the toughest international competition in the world. Ireland are a solid team and got through a tough group to get into a playoff, which they won comfortably to qualify. This is not a bad team by any stretch, but there's no doubt that they are the fourth best team in their group. Spain is arguably the best team in the world, Italy is a traditional power and Croatia has the top-notch talent playing at top clubs that Ireland simply doesn't have.