By Ryan Bailey
One step forward, one step back. That is the way it has been in Giovanni Trapattoni's five-year reign as Republic of Ireland manager. The highs of qualifying for Euro 2012 were quickly followed by calls for the manager's head after a disastrous campaign while the hard earned draw against Sweden in March was overshadowed by David Alaba’s last-gasp equaliser for Austria in Dublin days later.
However, while other players have been tanning themselves on exotic beaches and sipping pina coladas, the Boys in Green have enjoyed a pretty satisfactory and jam-packed end-of-season schedule. Despite Tuesday's defeat to world and European champions Spain, it has been a positive couple of weeks for Trapattoni and his squad. A disciplined and hard-earned draw against England at Wembley was backed up by a comfortable victory over Georgia before the ultimate goal was achieved by securing three qualification points against Faroe Islands with minimal fuss.
Some might question the quality of opposition in two of the four games played but there is no doubt that Ireland held their own against England before frustrating Vicente del Bosque's side for large periods in New York despite fielding a depleted side. It was inevitable Ireland were always going to be up against it at Yankee Stadium but as the Italian tactician had vowed, the Boys in Green were certainly not humiliated by the Iberians again.
Ireland's end-of-season campaign
||England 1-1 Ireland
||Ireland 4-0 Georgia
||Ireland 3-0 Faroe Islands|
||Spain 2-0 Ireland
The defeat brings an end to Ireland's six-game unbeaten run but since the 6-1 hammering at the hands of Germany last October, the Boys in Green have lost just two of their last nine outings which highlights Trapattoni's ability to grind out results. It is all about the means to the ends for the Italian and it is ultimately a results business; that is what he does best.
La Roja ran the show but were left frustrated by their spirited and disciplined opponents until the 69th minute when Roberto Soldado finally breached a make-shift Irish rear-guard. But by that stage Trapattoni's men could actually have been in the lead after demonstrating an attacking threat of their own. Inevitably, the friendly lacked the intensity of the game in Gdansk 12 months ago but this performance by an experimental XI marks a significant improvement and further progress under the former Juventus boss.
The four games may not live long in the memory but instead will be better remembered for the mark made by several players in green; not least the continued goal scoring exploits of a certain Dublin-born frontman as well as the continued rise of several exciting young prospects like Seamus Coleman, whose stock continues to rise at apace. The Everton flyer has now nailed down the right-back berth with a string of impressive performances including a man of the match display at Wembley. Coleman gave Barcelona's Jordi Alba a torrid time whenever the he ventured into Spanish territory on Tuesday and recent indications suggest Trapattoni has permitted his full-backs to get beyond the halfway line more regularly.
Meanwhile, there was concern over the goalkeeping position following Shay Given's retirement but David Forde has shown that he is a more than capable replacement and James McCarthy continues to highlight exactly why he has been chased by the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham. Moreover, the impact made by Wes Hoolahan after finally receiving the opportunity to shine on the international stage, has been refreshing.
Trapattoni overlooked the 31-year-old for a good portion of his time in charge, citing his lack of physical presence as a reason but the added dimension and quality he gives the Boys in Green in attack is far superior to any other options the 74-year-old currently has at his disposal. Another player who has enjoyed a very successful few weeks in a green jersey is Shane Long as he finally seems to have put previous misunderstandings with Trapattoni behind him and established himself as the most potent all-round attacking threat available to Ireland.
All in all, things are heading in the right direction, but all the hard work could be unravelled with defeat at the hands of their Group C Scandinavian rivals, Sweden. It is essential that the Boys in Green carry the momentum gained from a successful end-of-season period into the final stage of the qualification campaign because if they can fulfil their potential, Brazil 2014 is not as far away as it seems. Having followed the team closely since they first met up in London at the end of May, it has been evident that belief and confidence has been restored after a turbulent year both on and off the field as the manager's job hung by a thread.
David Forde summed up the ambiance within the camp perfectly when he admitted after the Faroe Islands clash that "the atmosphere is exactly like that experienced leading up to qualification for Poland/Ukraine". And if this qualification campaign ends in the same manner, then all the criticism of the Italian's style of play, lack of attacking ambition and negativity will be quickly forgotten once again.
All roads lead to Brazil from here and it is now up to the players to deliver when it really matters.