Biggest hope: a fallout of El Clasico proportions
To make it out of Group C would be a fine achievement for Ireland in the summer. A good start against Croatia is vital in order for progress to be made as the Spanish are next up, and heading into that match on the back of a defeat would make the challenge all the more difficult.
If Ireland can set up a must-win match against Italy in the final group match it will have all the makings of a classic encounter and with our recent record against the Italian’s you wouldn’t bet against Trap and the team sending the Azzurri on an early flight home.
A major rift between the Barcelona and Real Madrid contigent of the Spanish squad would be a ideal in the build up to the tournament.
Players to watch: David Meyler (Sunderland)
After battling back from two career-threatening knee injuries, Meyler has an outside chance of forcing his way into Giovanni Trapattoni’s plans for the summer if he can steer clear of further injury and work his way back into the Sunderland first team.
The 22-year-old midfielder has previously been on Trapattoni’s radar when the Italian selected the Cork native for the end-of-season friendly matches with Algeria and Paraguay in 2010 but he was forced to miss those due to injury.
Given Trapattoni’s preference for midfield destroyers, Meyler is exactly the sort of player who would suit the manager’s methods but it’s more likely that his opportunity will come when the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign starts in September.
Robbie Brady (Manchester United – on loan at Hull City)
The 19-year-old Dubliner, pictured, is enjoying a successful loan spell at Hull from his parent club, Manchester United.
The skilful winger was controversially left out of the Ireland U19 squad which travelled to Bucharest in July but has since gone on to impress for Noel King’s U21 team scoring three goals in four appearances.
Brady’s current deal with United expires in the summer but the Red Devils are keen to tie him down to a long-term contract.
James McClean (Sunderland)
Signed by Steve Bruce, but it wasn’t until Martin O’Neill took over the reins in December that McClean was handed his first team debut. The 22-year-old impressed from the substitutes bench against Blackburn Rovers, with his direct approach and crossing ability exciting the Black Cat’s supporters.
The former Derry City winger represented Northern Ireland at youth level but switched his international allegiance to the Republic in August and has spoken publicly about his desire to catch the eye of Trapattoni with a view to grabbing a place on the plane to Poland/Ukraine.
Homework: Trap’s study plan between now and June
Trapattoni has until the end of May to decide on the 23 players he will take to the European Championships.
The Italian has said he will be loyal to those players who he used during the qualification process so the majority of the squad will have already have been pencilled in but for those who are still in the ‘maybe’ category they will have just the one friendly in February to make an impression on the manager.
As ever he will spend a lot of his time looking over DVDs of previous matches involving both Ireland and our opponents in the summer, looking for potential weaknesses and also gaining a greater understanding of what areas his own side need to sharpen up on.
A talk with Steven Reid wouldn’t do any harm either; if injuries strike it would be good to have a better line of communication in place than currently exists between the pair.
Irreplaceable: Player Ireland cannot afford to lose
Without Richard Dunne at the heart of the Irish defence I cannot see how we will be able to get the results needed to qualify from Group C.
The 32-year-old doesn’t wear the captain’s armband but his performances during qualification showed that he has grown into a leader in the Paul McGrath mould. He doesn’t have to rant and rave at his teammates to get a reaction, his performance level is what inspires those around him.
The Tallaght native was a member of the 2002 World Cup squad but didn’t see a minute of action in the Far East. It would be a massive dent to Irish hopes if injury ruled him out this time.