Ireland panicked into forgetting themselves

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After ten years in the international wilderness, Republic of Ireland would have been hoping for a more positive return against Croatia on Sunday.

A disappointing result was made worse by its nature, with the values Giovanni Trapattoni has instilled in the Irish players appearing to leave them at first sight of the big stage.

Buoyed by a 14-game unbeaten run going into the game, this was the one fixture in Group C that Ireland would have had serious ambitions of prevailing, but any such confidence was severely dented little over two minutes in.

Shay Given looked a bit leaden-footed when attempting to stop Mario Mandzukic's stooped header inside the near post.

There was an abundance of space left for the Wolfsburg striker to exploit, an uncharacteristic error by a defence that has built its recent success on defensive stability and organisation.

Sean St Ledger's headed equaliser on 19 minutes was the culmination of an admirable recovery where Kevin Doyle's energy up front began to cause problems for Vedran Corluka, but this was only going to last so long.

It was only a brief period of dominance for the Boys in Green, as it was based almost entirely on chipped passes into the channels and no real possession.

Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff were the wide players for Ireland on a rainy night in Poznan and, the latter especially, used the ball well when he received it, but supplying either of the wingers was a basic problem.

Croatia's superior technique became prevalent as the game wore on and Luka Modric started to pull more and more strings to find space for Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic, his partner up front.

Ireland were struggling to match the midfield movement of Modric and Ivan Rakitic, which forced them to drop ever deeper, conceding much of the final third to the Croatians.

Such little pressure must have been a pleasant surprise to Slaven Bilic's players, and they exploited this greater time by picking dangerous passes in and around the box, sowing panic and uncertainty in the Irish defence.

This bore fruit for Jelavic, when more pandemonium in the box caused Stephen Ward to rush his clearance, only managing to put it on a plate for the Everton striker, who restored Croatia's lead a minute before half time.

It would have been a blow to Trapattoni, but it could hardly have been a surprise given the amount of territory they had conceded so early in the game.

Possession was a major problem for the Italian's side, in that they barely had any, and, once they did, reverted to predictable long passes that the Croatian defence soon became comfortable dealing with, and returned the ball to Modric for more cute passing.

Their failure to deal with the Spurs midfielder was the basis of their downfall, and the long ball preference meant the creative outlets of McGeady, Duff and Robbie Keane featured only in spurts.

It was a performance that smacked of stage fright – passes going awry, panicking in possession, and lashing at the ball when a more measured approach was required.

The third goal came just four minutes after the restart, and there was an element of misfortune for Given as it bounced off the post and in, via his head.

However, there was minimal pressure on the ball around the edge of the area and Mandzukic found far too much space again to make the header.

Croatia saw out the game at a canter after that, other than a strong shout for a penalty on Keane, and Trapattoni's substitutions failed to inspire any greater creativity – perhaps removing McGeady and Keane wasn't conducive to this.

Ireland can't compete with teams such as Croatia on a technical level, so solidity at the back is essential if they are to come out of the games with anything.

Spain await on Thursday and anything even slightly resembling the performance they put on in Poznan will see them hammered embarrassingly.

Perhaps the inevitable bus parking against the holders will force the Irish defence to locate the resilience that hallmarked their qualification.

Ireland need to re-establish the basics quickly or their return after a decade could be a sorry one.

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Tottenham Hotspur
Robbie Keane
Premier League

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