Summing up the state of affairs as we enter the second leg of the 2012 Euro playoffs:
The Republic of Ireland may have won by a larger margin, but there was no doubting the performance of the first leg of the playoffs for Euro 2012 qualification: Croatia's 3-0 win away to Turkey. Last month in Greece, Croatia looked flat, its defending of set plays was poor, and the general grumbling among the Croatian press about the coach Slaven Bilic seemed understandable. He looked weary, and it was easy to see why many felt he had stayed in the job too long.
In Istanbul, though, Croatia was magnificent. The early goal helped, of course, Ivica Olic scoring from close range after the goalkeeper Volkan Demirel had pushed out a Vedran Corluka cross after two minutes. That was a result of Croatia's early pressing -- a surprise perhaps given Bilic has said his team would have to absorb pressure. Thereafter, Turkey was forced to come at Croatia, who sat deep, and picked its opponent off on the break.
There are those who have hailed the death of 4-4-2, but the truth is it is dead as a proactive formation. Turkey dominated possession, as would be expected for the home team, particularly one with an extra man in the center of midfield, but it struggled to create against a disciplined Croatia defense. The statistics are barely credible: Turkey had 71 per cent possession, yet mustered just two chances (none on target) to Croatia's 16 (seven on target). Mario Mandzukic headed a second from Dario Srna's cross, and it was the captain's delivery again that allowed Corluka to add the third. The tie, realistically, is over, and Bilic has the possibility of the perfect farewell from the Croatia national team next summer.
The consensus in Ireland is that the ends justifies the means, and in this case it probably does. Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland may not always have played the prettiest soccer, but it has played effective soccer, losing just once in 11 Euro 2012 qualifying matches. Trapattoni has denied the calls for a more creative midfield, and has led his side to its first major championship finals since 2002 World Cup, and its first European Championship finals since 1988.
"I'm not God," he said after Friday's 4-0 win in Tallinn. Maybe not, but he does seem like another incarnation of Jack Charlton, with whom he shares a similarly idiosyncratic approach to language, and a similar distrust of all but the most industrious midfielders. He also inspires astonishing devotion from his players, something essential for those who attempt to impose the sort of tactical discipline upon which Trapattoni insists. "It has all been down to him," said Richard Dunne. "He's the one who has organized us. He's calm and relaxed, he does his work through the week and then, come match day, he trusts us all. He knows what we can do and what we can't do. He knows he's always going to get 100 per cent and he appreciates it from us. His management, tactical knowledge and attention to detail are top class. We've conceded one goal in God knows how long [in 951 minutes] and that's down to his organization."
Yes, Ireland got lucky in drawing Estonia, and got luckier again that its opponent had two men sent off, but after what happened in France in the World Cup playoffs, it was probably due some luck. It almost certainly won't win the Euros next summer, but it will be an awkward, dogged opponent.
The decision to sack Zlatko Kranjcar in September is looking increasingly misguided. His opponents will point out that Montenegro's slide had already begun before his departure, a home draw against Bulgaria being followed by defeat in Wales, but the truth is that results have got no better since, despite the return of a number of players who had been missing through injury or suspension. Branko Brnovic, who replaced Kranjcar, said he remains optimistic of overturning a 2-0 deficit back in Podgorica, but given Montenegro managed just seven goals in eight qualifying games, that seems improbable, even with Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic back in the side.
The Czechs had a worse record than anybody else involved in the playoffs apart from Estonia, and was probably fortunate to draw Montenegro, but Tomas Sivok's injury-time second is probably enough to put it through. Brnovic had spoken of the need to shut down Tomas Rosicky, but the Czechs always had an extra man in the center and took advantage. Against Turkey, Croatia accepted it would never dominate, sacrificing possession for a double curtain in defence and enhanced width when breaking. Although Simon Vukcevic looked fleetingly dangerous on the right, Montenegro never had the necessary vibrancy to threaten something similar; the zest seems to have left the squad along with Kranjcar.
An awful game on an awful pitch and, while Portugal certainly seemed the happier afterwards, the lack of an away goal must just sow the odd doubt. If it is there, Safet Susic, Bosnia's coach, happily nurtured it, predicting a 2-2 draw in the second leg.
His side was surprisingly cautious for the first 70 minutes, perhaps looking to protect a back four missing the two preferred center backs, Boris Pandza and Sasa Papac, through suspension, and the right back Mensur Mujdza through injury. The rest was that Portugal dominated but, whether because of the poor pitch (it's indicative of its quality that more passes were misplaced in that game than in any other in the whole of Euro qualifying), or through good defending, it had only two real chances. Cristiano Ronaldo, undone by a bobble, sliced the first wide and Helder Postiga was off target with a snap shot as a free kick bobbled through to him 12 yards out.
In that final 20 minutes, though, after a shift to 4-4-2 (with a narrow midfield that managed to overman Portugal's 4-3-3), Bosnia was far more threatening, and the substitute Vebad Ibisevic missed two fine chances, the first because of a poor first touch, the second as a bobble again thwarted him. Whether he sees that as an option or a dilemma depends how good a coach Susic is, but he has a choice: go with the 4-2-3-1 that has served Bosnia so well up till now, or gamble with the 4-4-2 that give his side superiority in the final quarter of the game in Zenica?