Ireland’s last major tournament appearance was ten years ago when they participated in the 2002 World Cup, ironically exiting at the hands of Spain, their group opponents at Euro 2012. The Irish build-up has been dominated by claims from within the squad that veteran Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s training regime has left the Boys in Green feeling sluggish ahead of the tournament. This is a claim the legendary manager refutes. “My first concern is never to push the players too hard. I’m the first not to push them hard in training”, said the Ireland boss. Influential goalkeeper Shay Given has been struggling with knee and calf niggles, but the Irish camp are confident he will start against Croatia – and that would be a big boost. Trapattoni has also hinted Los Angeles Galaxy striker Robbie Keane might be played in a deeper role in the opening fixture to prevent Croatia from dominating in the middle of the park. Slaven Bilic’s Last Stand The former central defender’s six-year reign as Croatia national team manager is set to end after the European Championship, with Bilic having agreed to take over as Lokomotiv Moscow boss. And the man who is departing is desperate to go out on a high by steering his country to at least match the achievement of reaching the quarter-finals four years ago. If the Croats are to make it through the group stage then much hinges on the opener against the Republic of Ireland in a group also containing Spain and Italy. That is something key midfielder Luka Modric well understands, with the Tottenham man remarking: “If we win it, then I believe we will reach the next phase. I believe we will play at our best and defeat Ireland.” Croatia’s preparations have been disrupted by Ivo Ilicevic’s calf injury. The midfielder has been ruled out of the tournament and UEFA have given the Vatreni special dispensation to replace the Hamburg player with Sime Vrasaljko. Full back Vedran Corluka is the only other injury concern ahead of the first game. Recent form Ireland: Ireland 1-1 Czech Republic (29/02; Friendly) Ireland 1-0 Bosnia-Herzegovina (26/05; Friendly) Hungary 0-0 Ireland (04/06; Friendly) Croatia: Croatia 1-3 Sweden (29/02; Friendly) Croatia 3-1 Estonia (25/05; Friendly) Norway 1-1 Croatia (02/06; Friendly) Players to watch Republic of Ireland – Robbie Keane : Possibly the creative forward’s last chance to demonstrate his talent at a major international tournament; the Republic’s talisman is the heatbeat of the team, tasked with scoring and creating goals. If Ireland are to have any chance of progressing from a difficult group they need their captain to be on top form. Croatia – Luka Modric : The key man in the Croatia midfield, the skilful playmaker dicatates the play for the Balkan nation and will be expected to provide a quality supply line to striker Nikica Jelavic. He could easily be one of the stars of the tournament if he brings his Tottenham form onto the international stage. Match Prediction This fixture is effectively a cup final for both teams. Defeat almost guarantees one of the first flights home, with matches against Spain and Italy still to come. A win gives the victors a fighting chance of making the quarter-finals. Trapattoni will be pragmatic in his approach so the onus will be on Bilic to attack. It is a tough one to call and there is little to separate the two sides. A draw seems the most likely outcome. For the very best odds on Ireland v Croatia and all Euro 2012 matches, make sure you visit TXODDS.com.
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Euro 2012 Group C: Ireland v Croatia Match Preview