Ireland has been absent from big tournaments in recent years, and this will mark just its second European championship since 1988 in West Germany. The repeated disappointments were reflected in a FIFA ranking that listed Giovanni Trapattoni's team at No. 42 globally when the veteran Italian coach took over in 2008. It was compounded during 2010 World Cup qualifying when it took a narrow, cruel defeat by France in the playoffs -- including a controversial helping hand from Thierry Henry -- to deny Ireland a trip to South Africa. But a turnaround may be in the works: a series of sturdy performances in the Euro qualifiers took the Irish to the finals in Poland/Ukraine.
The "Green Army" of traveling supporters will be out in full force to cheer their resurgent team, but experts are cautiously optimistic in light of a difficult draw and Trapattoni's defensive tactics. "After the draw, straightaway people were expecting us to come in last," said striker Shane Long. General consensus suggests that Ireland must win their first game against Croatia to stand a realistic chance at making it to the quarters.
The 32-year-old's nomadic career has taken him to MLS, but his predatory instincts remain undiminished: Keane scored seven times in the qualifiers. As the only player allowed to play between the lines, he doubles as a playmaker, drifting deep into midfield to help ease pressure and start attacks. It's simple: Keane is the singularly most important player on Ireland's squad.
A classic winger, the Scottish-born McGeady has long been hailed as Ireland's Next Big Thing. Now, the 26-year-old has a chance to make good on that promise. "He's in a good moment," said Trapattoni after the winger's impressive performance against Bosnia last Saturday.
Long, 25, is a powerful, no-nonsense striker who should see plenty of action, particularly given Trapattoni's tendency to replace starters with similar replacements. He has an interesting backstory, too: Long was a keen player of the Gaelic sport of hurling during his youth.
Fans and the media have tolerated -- rather than enjoyed -- Ireland's showings since the genial Trap took over. The kind of "results football" that Italy propagates is known for manufacturing low-scoring affairs, and dour, defensive performances. If the approach can generate a few victories, however, criticism will likely be minimal. In fact, Trapattoni could help neutrals and partisans alike to embrace this Irish team.
Trapattoni's unusual move to announce his starting lineup against Croatia one week early, after goalkeeper Shay Given and right back John O'Shea overcame injury scares, speaks to Ireland's tranquility entering the tournament. But it also attests to a dearth of options. With the exception of its front line, does Ireland have enough talent to make a true impact in Group C?
There is a sense that psychological momentum could be squarely with Ireland if the team is still in contention entering its last game against Italy. Trapattoni has a good record against his countrymen -- the Irish have drawn twice and won once during his tenure -- and Cesare Prandelli's men likely won't relish the physical challenge. Depending on how early matches unfold, Ireland's plight could make for a very intriguing storyline on June 18.
Trapattoni is wedded to a 4-4-2 system with two straight lines of four, two defensive midfielders (Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews) and a big/little man pairing of Keane and Kevin Doyle up front. The creativity is supposed to emanate from the flanks, where Ireland has a couple of flair players, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff. The Irish will mostly have to link up with Keane since the fullbacks (John O'Shea and Stephen Ward) won't venture over the halfway line very often.
The system's rigidity, and its reliance on long balls and dead-ball situations, can sometimes be reminiscent of early 90's "POMO" (position of maximum opportunity) style. But "war in the other half", as Trap once labeled his uncompromising approach, coupled with solid organization in the back has generated results. Ireland has just lost twice in 24 competitive games since he's taken over. In a tournament that will be peppered with dodgy defenses, Ireland -- despite its long odds -- could have the makings of a surprise contender.