Ireland pose a dilemma for the fun-hungry neutral. On the one hand, they’re Ireland: jolly, loveable underdogs with the best fans in the tournament, a twinkle in their eye, a pig under each arm etc etc. On the other, under the stewardship of cynical Italian pensioner Giovanni Trapattoni, they’ll probably be the most nigglingly defensive team at Euro 2012. If the opposition can get past stout central midfielders Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, they’ll still struggle to score against leaping goalie Shay Given and defensive enforcer Richard Dunne, who will quite happily stop a barrage of hard shots with his face.
With Italy and Spain also in Group C, this is the best chance of a win for the Irish: Croatia are nothing like the team who lit up Euro 2008. They’re a bit slow and have too many players who can’t get in their club’s first 11. Ireland won the pre-tournament preparation as well: spotting Croatia coach Slaven Bilic in the crowd at a warm-up friendly, they proceeded to play out an uneventful 0-0 against Hungary on a pitch covered in puddles, leaving Bilic absolutely none the wiser. Fiendish.
STAR PLAYER: Croatian midfield man-child Luka Modric will be the most talented player on the pitch by an embarrassing margin.
SECRET WEAPON: Ireland’s Aiden McGeady. Any creativity the Irish show will come from the flanks and McGeady – who rather pretentiously plays his club football for Spartak Moscow rather than Sunderland, Leicester or Wolves – could provide it.
PREDICTION: Ireland trample on the Croatians to score an exciting, if technically appalling, 2-0 win.