Czechs show us how to utilise talent
IT WAS LIKE the summer of 2002 once again -- but for all the wrong reasons.
And last night's events against the Czech Republic is likely to be a sign of what's to come in those big battles against Croatia, Spain and Italy in Poland next summer: the concession of an early goal after a catnap by the Irish defence, a stirring fight-back with sleeves rolled up, the blow of a battering ram and a bit of luck. And then a draw.
Amid all the flag-waving and cheers from the summer which Ireland spent in Japan and South Korea 10 years ago, the fact remains that, apart from the 3-0 hammering of Saudi Arabia, in every other game Ireland went behind early (in the first half against Cameroon, Germany and Spain) and battled their way back to earn a 1-1 draw each time with late equalisers.
It was enough to get Ireland out of the group and enough to take the Spanish side to extra-time and penalties, but will it be enough to get Ireland out of their group and onto the road to Kyiv for the quarter-finals?
As long as potential game-changing players like Wes Hoolahan or James McCarthy are either watching at home on television or from the bench, we are back to a game of hit-and-hope.
As long as Paul Green is given another run while McCarthy is given the cold shoulder yet again, maybe there's no hope.
On the evidence of last night, next summer we're in for more of the same as 2002: watching the clock in the last five minutes hoping that Ireland can squeeze an equaliser out of somewhere.
Amid the obvious positives from James McClean's stirring debut, the way in which Ireland surrendered possession and gifted so much space to the Czechs for so long is a serious concern ahead of that June 10th meeting with Croatia.
What must also be of concern is how Ireland gave up possession so easily to a Czech side which is far from greatness.
Trapattoni constantly reminds us of the hand he is dealt, that a man who worked with some of the game's finest ever talents (Brady, Boniek, Platini, Laudrup, Matthaus, Klinsmann, Baggio) is not dealing with the same calibre of players with Ireland but does the best with what he has. Our players are not world class, if they were we wouldn't have so many players at West Brom, Wolves and Stoke.
But he's not the only national team boss who has to make do with what he has. When the Czechs last visited Dublin, and played out a 1-1 draw against a weakened and demoralised Ireland side still reeling from the defeat in Cyprus just days earlier, the visitors had some very fine players indeed from some very fine clubs: Chelsea, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Fiorentina, Paris St Germain, AC Milan, Monaco, Ajax all supplied players to that Czech team in 2006.
In contrast, that night Steve Staunton's team had three players who were with Championship clubs and another who was in the English third division. On the bench Ireland had a bunch of Alans (Lee, Quinn and O'Brien). The Czech bench in '06 had a man from Ajax.
The Czech team from last night had only two players who play for what could be considered a top side (Chelsea's Petr Cech and Bayer Leverkusen man Michal Kadlec).
Their coach, Michal Bilek, used eight home-based players against Ireland with the rest scattered among clubs from Cyprus, Turkey, Germany and France, and yet they outplayed Ireland for long periods.
Jan Rezek, who plays for Anorthosis in Cyprus, was one of the best players on the park while Jiri Stajner, who plays in the Czech league for Slovan Liberec, was also outstanding. He's not exactly a young tyro, he turns 36 in a few weeks, but he shone in the Czech attack, playing just off another veteran in Milan Baros.
Twelve games unbeaten is an impressive run from Ireland and the side deserve credit from coming behind to earn a draw and keep up that run.
But having been outplayed at home yet again, the consolation is that the games that count next summer will be played away from home.