For both teams, this first game might prove to be the most pivotal of the group stage. Whether they admit it or not, nobody will be betting on Croatia or Ireland to be getting out of the first round. Taking this into account a win will be crucial, especially when the rest of the competition consists of the Spanish and Italian national teams.
Although the Irish lack big names on their team, it will be filled with veterans (Robbie Keane and Shay Given for example) who have all had plenty of experience in international games. Richard Dunne will be an easy pick to lead the defense for the boys in green along with Whelan and Andrews in the middle. Their style is going to be rigid and conservative which will make it difficult for the Croatians to get through, yet also make it difficult for the Irish to get numbers on offense.
Trappatoni, the current coach, favors a strict 4-4-2 formation which will utilize team over individual play. Trappatoni is no fool either, he has a Mourinho-like quality to coaching which may make a significant difference in the game: “As of now, I spend all my time watching DVDs of Spain, Croatia and Italy, looking at the tactical approach and what I can do. I have seen all of the games – home and away – of the teams we will play. Every little detail – free-kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins, how they start the game – is important for us and will be important in the games in June. I have to make sure that the team is 100 per cent prepared for every little detail. I cannot think after the game: “I didn’t know they would do this.” I need to know everything about their players and their team.”
There is going to be no doubt that with Trappatoni’s help, the team will definitely be prepared, whether their talent will suffice is another question. Expect a subdued Irish squad with a focus on containment on their own side. The Irish will be a very organized team which will compensate for their lack in creativity and talent with discipline and shape.
The Croatians on the other hand, have plenty of talent to spread amongst the starting eleven. Schildenfeld and Simunic will be able to hold a pretty strong line on defense while Srna and Perisic will provide much-needed speed in the midfield. However, much of the faith of the team has fallen upon midfielder Luka Modric. Head coach Salven Bilic has put much emphasis on their star before the start of the tournament: “Italy have Pirlo, Spain have Xavi but we have Modric.”
This is going to be a lot of pressure for a player who may or may not be prepared physically or mentally for the tournament. Modric has been given lighter training sessions after a long and arduous season at Tottenham and has also just signed a four-year contract with Manchester United. This intertwined with Ivica Olic’s injury (and subsequent retirement from international play) may overestimate Croatia’s chances against Ireland.
Republic of Ireland:
Republic of Ireland – Key Players
Don’t be fooled by his thirty-six years of age, Given has proven to be just as agile and important as any other player on the national team. With more caps than any other player on the team or the history of the Irish squad, Given will provide experience along with vision which makes him essentially a second coach for the team.
Dunne probably won’t score any goals for the Irish side, but will probably be the most important player. Due to the focus on defending, it will be imperative that Dunne continues his consistent and strong play in the back. Although a defender, Dunne may be one of the players who sees the most of the ball as he will be challenged to steal, clear, and counter any plays from the opposition.
To claim that Keane has had a good season, well, might be a little far from the truth. The L.A. Galaxy forward has had better seasons but may prove to have a more influential impact for the Irish. Like Given, Keane has over one-hundred caps for the national team which gives the player a more comfortable feel for the tournament. Scrappy and intelligent, Keane has the potential to score a goal off a counter at any point during a game.
Croatia – Key Players
Captain of the team, tireless player, and amazing work rate all define midfielder Darijo Srna. Along with the help of Modric, the midfield for Croatia will be their strongest point. What makes Srna stand out is his ability to not only attack but to also be able to return to the back and help the defensive line.
Easily the most important attacker on the team is Everton’s Nikica Jelavic. Olic’s injury would have been a more severe blow to Croatia if Jelavic wasn’t starting. In just sixteen appearances, Jelavic has netted eleven goals for the Toffees. An explosive and dangerous player who can turn any cross, corner kick or counter into a goal.
If Croatia was a human body, Luka Modric would be the heart, brain, and soul of the team. He is a playmaker, a defender and goal-scorer for the Croatian side. His creative passes and movement make him a feared opponent for any team. Interestingly enough, his only fault may only be his team’s reliance on just him for the success of the team.
Republic of Ireland 1-0 Croatia
Although the Croatian team are the better side on paper, their dependence on Modric will prove to be an Achilles’ heel. Trappatoni will lead an Irish side that are better disciplined and more organized than their Croatian counter-parts. The Irish won’t dominate possession, but will utilize their small amount of chances on goal to win the game.