IrelandIt is 24 years since the Republic took their place on the European stage for the first time when they went to the 1988 finals in Germany. That qualification was achieved with a foreign manager, Jack Charlton, and a little help from a striker from another country, with Scotland’s Gary Mackay scoring the winning goal against Bulgaria in Sofia that ensured Ireland’s passage. 

There are similarities this time round, with another foreign manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, in charge. And they also got a helping hand from an overseas forward when former Poland international Zbigniew Boniek, who played for Trapattoni at Juventus, drew Ireland against Estonia, the weakest team in the play-offs.

Trapattoni may have been unfortunate to lose out on a place in the 2010 World Cup after the infamous Thierry Henry handball in Paris, but overall he has had luck on his side. And although he has been criticised for being conservative by some sections of the Irish media, there is no doubt that he has used all his experience to build a team that is not only hard to beat but one that can also play attractive football if allowed.

While Charlton inherited a talented squad when he took over in 1986, Trapattoni has worked wonders with few real stars, apart from record goalscorer Robbie Keane.

The Irish have always been difficult to beat in Dublin and that tradition has continued under Trapattoni. But Russia caused a surprise when they raced into a 3-0 lead in the qualifiers. A change of tactics by the manager saw the Irish pull two goals back, but defeat had supporters questioning if they could make it to the finals.

Another setback came in the draw with Slovakia in Dublin last September, but four days later the Irish held out for an unbelievable point in Moscow. Richard Dunne was magnificent that night, as was goalkeeper Shay Given. The same night Slovakia’s chances evaporated when they lost 4-0 at home to Armenia. Victory over Andorra and Armenia then secured the runners-up spot and a place in the play-offs.

Victory over Estonia in the first leg in Tallinn had Irish fans already planning their summer holidays, but Trapattoni wouldn’t admit that the “cat was in the sack” until after the second leg in Dublin which ended 1-1.

Loyal Trapattoni

Trapattoni is loyal to his players and has maintained all along he will stand by those who featured in the 12 qualifying games. That is bad news for rising stars such as James McClean of Sunderland and Everton’s Shane Duffy. McClean made a brief appearance against the Czech Republic in February, but Trapattoni has hinted that the player, who has been in great form for his club this season, may have to wait until the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

Trapattoni used 26 players in the qualifying games and two of them were goalkeepers, Given and Kieren Westwood. David Forde is likely to be the third-choice. Kevin Kilbane is injured, and if the manager does stand by the players who took part in the qualifiers Liam Lawrence, Andy Keogh and James McCarthy are likely to be the ones who miss out – which is especially tough on McCarthy, who has opted to play for the Republic rather than his native Scotland.

Irish fans, who will be attending their first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup, are happy that travel-wise they are based in Poland. And with the country going through a tough time economically, qualification has definitely helped to lift the mood of the nation.

Group C is a tough one and playing for three draws might not be enough to get through to the knockout stage. It looks as though Trapattoni’s side may have to win one game if they hope to progress.

Group C
10.06.12 Croatia (Poznan, Pol)
14.06.12 Spain (Gdansk, Pol)
18.06.12 Italy (Poznan, Pol)

23 David Forde (32) 20.12.79 Millwall (Eng)
1 Shay Given (36) 20.04.76 Aston Villa (Eng)
16 Keiren Westwood (27) 23.10.84 Sunderland (Eng)

5 Richard Dunne (32) 21.09.79 Aston Villa (Eng)
12 Stephen Kelly (28) 06.09.83 Fulham (Eng)
13 Paul McShane (26) 06.01.86 Hull City (Eng)
18 Darren O’Dea (25) 04.02.87 Celtic (Sco)
4 John O’Shea (31) 30.04.81 Sunderland
2 Sean St Ledger (27) 28.12.84 Leicester City (Eng)
3 Stephen Ward (26) 20.08.85 Wolverhampton Wanderers (Eng)

8 Keith Andrews (31) 13.09.80 West Bromwich Albion (Eng)
11 Damien Duff (33) 02.03.79 Fulham (Eng)
15 Darron Gibson (24) 25.10.87 Everton (Eng)
21 Paul Green (29) 10.04.83 unattached
17 Stephen Hunt (30) 01.08.81 Wolverhampton Wanderers (Eng)
22 James McClean (23) 22.04.89 Sunderland (Eng)
7 Aiden McGeady (26) 04.04.86 Spartak Moscow (Rus)
6 Glenn Whelan (28) 13.01.84 Stoke City (Eng)

20 Simon Cox (25) 28.0487 West Bromwich Albion (Eng)
9 Kevin Doyle (28) 18.08.83 Wolverhampton Wanderers (Eng)
10 Robbie Keane (31) 08.07.80 Los Angeles Galaxy (USA)
19 Shane Long (25) 22.01.87 West Bromwich Albion (Eng)
14 Jonathan Walters (28) 20.09.83 Stoke City (Eng)

Giovanni TRAPATTONI (Ita) (73) 17.03.39

… Wigan Athletic midfielder James McCarthy asked to be left out of the squad after his father was diagnosed with cancer … Keith Fahey was forced to withdraw after aggrevating a groin problem and he was replaced by former Derby County midfielder Paul Green … Kevin Foley pulled out of the final 23 with a hamstring problem and was replaced by Paul McShane …

Group B
03.09.10 Armenia (a) 1-0
07.09.10 Andorra (h) 3-1
08.10.10 Russia (h) 2-3
12.10.10 Slovakia (a) 1-1
26.03.11 Macedonia (h) 2-1
04.06.11 Macedonia (a) 2-0
02.09.11 Slovakia (h) 0-0
06.09.11 Russia (a) 0-0
07.10.11 Andorra (a) 2-0
11.10.11 Armenia (h) 2-1

P W D L F A Pts
Russia 10 7 2 1 17 4 23
Rep Ireland 10 6 3 1 15 7 21
Armenia 10 5 2 3 22 10 17
Slovakia 10 4 3 3 7 10 15
Macedonia 10 2 2 6 8 14 8
Andorra 10 0 0 10 1 25 0

11.11.11 Estonia (a) 4-0
15.11.11 Estonia (h) 1-1

By Sean Creedon