Once qualification chances are decisively squandered, it will be one tournament reached out of three for Ireland under Trapattoni; the time is right to freshen up the scene
By Ryan Kelly
The opening 20 minutes of Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Sweden were enrapturing. Spurred on by the heaving optimism of the crowd, Ireland showed conviction in their approach to the game. John O'Shea and Richard Dunne combined to dismantle the mystique of the normally formidable Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Shane Long snapped eagerly at the Swedish defence, causing panic and sending them into disarray. The dominance was duly rewarded after 22 minutes, when none other than Robbie Keane latched on to a flicked header to defiantly score a memorable 60th international goal.
However, as is seemingly inevitable, that dominance was soon relinquished; Ireland switched off entirely and initiative was handed to Erik Hamren's side on a plate. The warning sirens began to wail, particularly when Seb Larsson waltzed unchecked into the Irish box on the half-hour mark to meet a sublime cross from Ibrahimovic. Only a woeful header spared Ireland's blushes, but the equaliser was not far away.
Johan Elmander easily shrugged off the attention of Richard Dunne to propel a thunderous header past David Forde. Dunne's overall display was abysmal; he looked sluggish, clumsy and incompetent, a shade of his former self, but he was not alone. Sweden's winning goal came from the oldest man on the pitch, Anders Svensson, who dragged a hapless Glenn Whelan after him before slotting past Forde 10 minutes into the second half. The Stoke City midfielder struggled to keep up with the aging veteran and his mindless hounding allowed Svensson to remain onside as Ibrahimovic threaded the pass.
When Ireland went behind, on the pitch it appeared as if all hope of reaching the World Cup in Brazil had been abandoned. Captain Robbie Keane attempted, in vain, to rally the troops, but they were spent, urgency had been sapped and there was not a single iota of imagination left.
It was then that their general let them down. With 20 minutes to go, Giovanni Trapattoni looked to his bench. He looked past the guile and technique of Wes Hoolahan, past the pace and exuberance of Robbie Brady and sent Simon Cox into the breach, out of position. Minutes later, he surveyed his men and decided to haul off the impressive James McClean for Anthony Pilkington. These were like for like changes that made no impact on the complexion of the game and unsurprisingly the Boys in Green limped off the stage, clueless and well beaten. Such has long been the trend under Trapattoni; if it is not an uninspiring defeat, it is a lamentable draw that Ireland are left to contemplate.
The Italian's unbeaten runs are held up as justification for the methods and personnel deployed during his tenure. After all, who could argue against only three (now four) competitive defeats? In truth, however, raw statistics can be misleading, masking the actual nature of events. Draws and narrow losses against traditional football powerhouses such as France, Italy and Russia are lauded in the context that these teams should automatically triumph over lowly Ireland, but, when analysed based on the performances on the day, they quickly lose their sheen.
Ireland should have defeated Italy at home, but gifted the Azzurri a late equaliser; they stood off France in Croke Park and accepted a 1-0 defeat. Similarly, they allowed Austria to take a point from the Aviva Stadium in March, thus inviting greater pressure during the run-in in Group C. There is no masking the defeat to Sweden.
It would be naïve to place absolute blame on Trapattoni's shoulders, and, while qualification is still technically possible, it is clear that the Italian has reached the end of the road as far as this team is concerned. There have been too many draws, too many instances where both players and manager failed to make that final, decisive move to force Ireland over the line.
Change is needed and though it is possible that managerial surgery could backfire, there is no question that Trapattoni's competitive record is declining. A nightmarish Euro 2012 was followed by a humiliating, record-breaking 6-1 defeat at home to Germany and, after slumping to another home defeat against Sweden, it is now looking like one tournament out of three attempts for the 74-year-old.
Trapattoni has had his time. He must now hand over the reins with good grace.