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Dec 4, 2011

Irish underdogs

It may have seemed as if Ireland's Euro 2012 dreams had suffered a hammer blow as they were thrown into a opening group featuring Spain, Italy and Croatia, yet the reaction in Dublin has been surprisingly upbeat as the gravity of the task facing Giovanni Trapattoni's rank outsiders was digested.

Pessimism generally dominates the tone of the pundits charged with assessing the hopes of the Ireland national team, yet an unfamiliar air of optimism seems to have swept the nation despite the prospect of clashes against all-conquering World and European champions Spain, the mighty Azzurri and a gifted Croatian side.

Ireland's opening game against the Croatians in Poznan on June 10 is likely to be pivotal to their hopes, yet the feeling in Dublin is that the final Group C game against Italy offers plenty of potential for Trapattoni to outsmart his compatriots and plot an improbable route to the knock-out stages.

The always outspoken RTE pundit Eamon Dunphy provided a predictably colourful assessment of the challenge Ireland face in Poland next summer, with his damning view of Italy fuelling the widely aired perception that Ireland were fortunate to be paired with Cesare Prandelli's team.

"I don't think this is a terrifying draw by any means and it could have been much worse for Ireland," suggested Dunphy. "We drew both games against the Italians in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, beat them in a friendly last summer and can fancy our chances against them again.

"In my eyes, Italy are a poor side. Striker Antonio Cassano is a waste of space and Andrea Pirlo is still a key man for them, even though he is well past his best. They are a team that are getting worse all the time and if Ireland get to that final group game needing to get something from Italy, I'm sure they can do it.

"Spain are obviously a top side and will be a very difficult prospect for Ireland while Croatia are decent, but the group featuring Germany and Netherlands would have been worse for us. Four points may get us through to the second phase and that is a realistic target."

Wolves and Ireland defender Stephen Ward seemed enthused rather than daunted by the prospect of games against Spain and Italy, with his assessment of the Ireland adventure summing up the mood of a squad that relish their underdog status.

"We rise to the challenge when the odds are stacked against us and I expect us to do the same again at Euro 2012," states Ward. "If we had been thrown in the first group with Poland, Russia and Greece, the pressure would have all been on us to get through, but now we can go about our business with low expectations from those outside the camp.

"Everyone will say we have no chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals after that draw, but none of the lads in our dressing room will see it like that. Ireland have a history of upsetting the odds and we will look forward to these games rather than fear them."

Ward's club and international team mate Kevin Doyle believes few of the fancied nations would have wanted to be paired with Ireland at Euro 2012, with Trapattoni's legendary reputation giving them an advantage over some of their high profile rivals.

"Trapattoni has us well organised and believe we can nick a goal against anyone, which is why most teams would rather have avoided us in this draw," says Doyle. "You look at the way England got a win against Spain a few weeks back by soaking up the pressure and hitting them on the break and it showed what was possible.

"We beat Italy in the summer, got a draw against Croatia a few weeks back and should feel confident going into Euro 2012. We are hard to score against and that is why teams won't enjoy playing against us."

The potentially decisive Group C game against Italy will be played 18 years to the day after Ray Houghton's famous winning goal against the Azzurri in the 1994 World Cup finals, with the former Liverpool midfielder another optimist as he assessed Ireland's prospects.

"We always have one game in a major tournament where we perform above ourselves against the biggest names and I'm sure we'll do that again at Euro 2012," says Houghton. "One thing the Irish will have above some of their opponents next summer is a great togetherness and a bond that can carry them a long way. When you are away with a group for a lengthy period, you need to get along and Ireland will have no problem in that department."

The written press have been a little less bullish when summing up Ireland's prospects, with Daniel McDonnell offering a slightly more sobering perspective in Saturday's Irish Independent.

"It's hard to construct a seriously plausible argument as to why Ireland should qualify for the knockout stages," he wrote. "Of course, the old Irish stereotype is that we are better as underdogs, and this group will test that school of thought. Trapattoni has always pointed out that the key to succeeding against the elite nations is the avoidance of injuries. He will need a lot more than that to go right if Ireland are to progress."

With the Football Association of Ireland confirming the Czech Republic will play a friendly game at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on February, the prospect of an emotive pre-Euro 2012 game with England now appears to be a fading, with UEFA needing to rubber stamp a game on a proposed date in May.

Current rules state that teams competing in a major tournament cannot face each other in friendly internationals less than 30 days before the competitive action begins, with the FAI putting pressure on UEFA to relax that rule to allow what would be an historic meeting with England as a final appetiser ahead of the main feast.

The fantasists may prefer to save such a showdown for a Euro 2012 quarter-final in Kiev on June 24 and as Trapattoni has already converted so many Irish dreams into reality, why not juggle with the prospect of a few more.

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