Ireland facing crucible of pain
IT doesn't matter which team is picked - none of them could survive the Spanish inquisition
UP until the point when the stadium clock in Poznan registered an hour gone and thirty to go on Sunday, Giovanni Trapattoni was an oasis of consistency in an ever-shifting world.
Throughout the last four years, he has stood against the tidal shift in football back to playmakers and set his stall out.
"Come and beat my team," he said. "If you're good enough."
Mostly, they have not been good enough and even when they were, Trapattoni has enjoyed the kind regard of a greater power than himself.
Tonight, against the greatest power in the world game, he will look for something from players who, by his own standard, have been unable to carry out his instructions with the required commitment and intent.
His captain, Robbie Keane, is bullet-proof and Trapattoni has hung his hat on a player who has delivered goals in the past but nothing in the here and now which might just make the difference between humiliation and Euro 2012 redemption.
The manager's system has been compromised and for those who identified a glaring weakness in Trapattoni's method a long time ago, there is nowhere left to hide.
The simple logic is that Spain will have too much talent on the pitch for Ireland to cope with, no matter what team Vicente del Bosque chooses.
Trapattoni's answer is to pull up the drawbridge and engage in what Jack Charlton used to call 'silly buggers'.
But it's too late for that. Many chickens came home to roost against the Croatians and his attempt to gather them up and stuff them back in the coop have been pallid and unconvincing all week.
First and foremost, his captain Robbie Keane has not shouldered enough responsibility and Trapattoni said as much after the friendly against Hungary and again after Croatia.
Yet Keane will play against Spain tonight and someone else will take the hit although only a fool would try to predict what Trapattoni will do before kick-off.
It is by no means certain that Kevin Doyle will make way for Jon Walters and there is a school of thought which suggests that Paul Green will be the man to benefit most from events in the Municipal Stadium in Poznan.
Or Trapattoni may simply leave things as they are, start with his one to eleven again and hope for the best that del Bosque once again tries to charm the ball into the net via a slew of silky and mesmeric feet.
Yesterday, Trapattoni strayed from his own tradition established very early in his stewardship of Ireland and refused to release his team for the first time in four years.
"I will not give my team to del Bosque," he said.
No doubt, Del Bosque is quaking in his fashionable loafers.
The reality is that it does not really matter what team Trapattoni puts out on the field, His fate will be decided by how well Spain play and nothing else.
If Iniesta purrs and Xavi prompts; if Alonso directs traffic and Fabregas gets ahead of the ball, it won't matter if Trapattoni plays ten Paul Greens or a dozen Jonathon Walters. Ireland will lose and probably lose badly.
There is always a qualification to make after a statement like that and our friends in the Spanish media have been only too accommodating in supplying a big one.
They say that Jose Mourinho is on the phone to his Real Madrid players, whispering quietly that the Catalans are not friends and will never be.
It is within his interests to keep the two parts of Spain separate and he is, after all, Portuguese.
There is also the great-hearted Carlos Puyol, del Bosque's heartbeat and a man sorely missed given the fact that Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique are rumoured to have a less than cordial personal relationship, hardly the basis for a solid central defensive partnership.
But of all of that is so much tittle-tattle and even if it's true, Trapattoni's system was so badly wounded by Croatia that it is hard to see any way back.
He threw players at problem in Poznan and he didn't solve it. His team's balance disappeared and players sitting on the bench who might have made a difference could only bite their tongue and wait.
All week, he has told us that he is thinking about the problem and all week he has hinted that he will solve it in the same way he has tried to before but without success.
The root of his problem goes all the way back to his first few months in charge when he decided that Ireland could only play one way and set about purging his squad of anyone with an ounce of imagination and creativity.
Now, with the enemy at his door, Trapattoni is desperately trying to fit square pegs into round holes to solve a problem which, if he is honest, first manifested itself more than two years ago.
While Trapattoni looks to his strikers for a solution, the rest of us wonder what might have been if he had encouraged James McCarthy instead of alienating a player who could play the role he wants with his eyes shut.
If Walters plays in midfield he will bring a physical presence which might slow the Spanish down but it won't stop them in their tracks and short of that, Iniesta and his mates will dance rings around Ireland.
This could be a very grim night indeed.
Prediction: Spain 2 Ireland 0