Giovanni Trapattoni has warned the Republic of Ireland's UEFA EURO 2012 rivals that his side will relish their role as the tournament's underdogs. Sharing the same stage as the all-star casts of Spain, Germany and the Netherlands will initially leave Trapattoni's journeymen pushed firmly into the shadows when the tournament gets underway in Poland and the Ukraine on 8 June.
When they were drawn in a Group C including world and European champions Spain, as well as Italy and Croatia, it would have been understandable if Ireland prepared to travel to eastern Europe more in hope than expectation of stealing the spotlight. Bookmakers certainly expect little from the Irish, who have been installed as such heavy outsiders at 80-1 that, of the 16 teams competing, only Denmark are regarded as less likely winners.
Trapattoni, however, takes a far more upbeat approach to his team's first appearance at the European Championships since 1988 and their first at any major tournament since the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ in Japan and Korea Republic. Inspired by Denmark's remarkable triumph at EURO 1992 when the team arrived as last-minute replacements for war-torn Yugoslavia and ended up taking home the trophy, Trapattoni is convinced his players can confound the critics.
"Everyone thought Barcelona would win the Champions League this season but they lost. And Denmark were on holidays when they came back to win the European Championships in 1992," Trapattoni said. "Obviously, over some months the stronger teams usually win but 90 minutes is 90 minutes. There are games that teams can lose in an instant after a mistake. That is football."
In terms of star power there is no denying Ireland are very much a support act in a group featuring Spain's Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Italian talents like Antonio Cassano and Daniele De Rossi and Croatia midfielder Luka Modric. While Shay Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane have enjoyed good careers at the highest level, the majority of Ireland's squad are Premier League and Championship grafters who rely on perspiration rather than inspiration.
Trapattoni, who has handed a fairytale call-up to young winger James McClean just six months after he was languishing in Sunderland's reserve team, acknowledges his group is cut from rougher cloth than most but should still be respected. "We don't have (Lionel) Messi or other quality creative players like (Cristiano) Ronaldo, but we have a strong team with organisation and with balance," Trapattoni said.
Cause for celebration
Whatever their fate, Ireland's progress to the finals is cause enough for celebration after such a long absence from major tournaments. After finishing runners-up to Russia in their qualifying group, Ireland were handed a plum draw against minnows Estonia in the play-offs. They banished the memories of agonising play-off defeats against Belgium, Iran and France with an emphatic 5-1 aggregate victory.
Thoughts quickly turned to emulating Jack Charlton's 1988 vintage that shocked England 1-0 in Germany and the 1990 team which reached the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals. Ireland open their campaign against Croatia in Poznan on 10 June before tackling Spain in Gdansk four days later.
Their final group fixture is a potentially epic encounter with Trapattoni's native Italy in Poznan on 18 June. Realistically, Trapattoni's men are likely to have to beat Croatia to stand a chance of qualifying, and if they do so, he admits the Italy game could be crucial.