By Tim Treacy

Packie Bonner v Romania, Italia 1990

We haven’t qualified for the 2010 world cup yet, but surely Ireland have a great chance of doing so this time round. Not since the days of David O’Leary’s penalty against Romania in 1990 following Packie Bonner’s terrific penalty save or Alan McLoughlin’s equalizer against Northern Ireland in 1993 that sent Ireland to USA 94 or when Ray Houghton’s left footed volley-come-lob against Italy at the Giants Stadium, New York in 1994 sent the country crazy, or when Robbie Keane’s late late LATE equalizer against Germany 2002, which made Mick McCarthy do impressions of Michael Flatley, has there been so much hope and quiet confidence associated with the Ireland football team.

Ireland have to believe that they have a real chance to qualify for the tournament which is just 14 months away. In Giovanni Trapattoni, the 70-year-old Italian who carries the nation on his shoulders, Ireland have a coach who has managed some of Europe’s best teams; AC Milan, Juventus,  Bayern Munich (all twice), Inter Milan, Cagliari, Fiorentina, Benfica, Stuttgart and Red Bull Salzburg and he is well capable of succeeding at this challenge. He has made many changes to the squad and how they approach games. Teams are far less likely to score against us now as he has brought that steely defensive mentality that proved so successful for AC Milan 20 years ago to the Irish team.

Ray Houghton sent a nation crazyWe are wanting in midfield and if he could convince one of the young players of the year in the English Premiere League (EPL) to come out of international retirement, Steven Ireland could prove to be the difference between the group stages or the knockout rounds in South Africa. In Stephen Ireland we have one of the youngest brightest stars in the EPL, he’s 22 years old, and if Trapattoni can work something out with the young lad, it can only benefit the Irish team.

With Steven Reid, Damien Duff, Steven Ireland, Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane and not forgetting the sometimes undervalued and under-rated Kevin Doyle, Ireland have a front 6 there that can cause any team problems. McGeady is one of the best wingers in the game, Duff no doubt has talent but needs to stay, or rather get, fit and hopefully Doyle can sign for a Premiere League outfit sooner rather than later. Then we also have the likes of John O’Shea, Richard Dunne and Shay Given. The latter single-handedly kept Newcastle off the bottom on the EPL and since his move to Man City in January has continued to rival Pepe Riena and Edwin Van Der Sar for the accolades of the league’s best keeper.

The Republic of Ireland may be upset by the manner of the draw with Bulgaria but lets not forget, that most of the media believed we would finish second to Italy and qualify for South Africa 2010 via the playoffs. Beat or draw with Italy today and then beat or draw with them in Dublin later in the year and Ireland could well indeed top the group. I don’t think we’ll do it without Steven Ireland so hopefully someone out there can have a word with him. Trapattoni also needs to work out whatever issues he has with Andy Reid and include him in the squad.

So to toady then. Ireland take on Italy for what promises to be, if history is anything to go by, nothing short of epic. Ireland were the surprise package at Italia 90 and it was Italy who knocked us out in the quarter finals. Role on 4 years and well, a Roberto Baggio headed Italy were beaten by a marvelous Irish performance that day, be it a very cheeky goal some might say, but it was marvelous on Houghton’s part.

We lock horns again today. Ireland, as usual, the underdog. This is arguably the biggest tie of the mid-week world cup fixtures and if Ireland can pull off a surprise win, we will lead the group by 1 point.  Oh this is the stuff dreams are made of. Who would count against us? Italy haven’t. They aren’t even playing the game in Rome. The moved the tie to Bari where the atmosphere in the stadium is said to be even more intense and intimidating than anything Rome or Milan can muster up.

Italy’s manager, Marcelo Lippi has warned his Italian side not to take Ireland lightly. When asked about Ireland’s style of play Lippi replied,“They don’t play like Brazil, they play like Italy. They are hard to beat and they have some individuals who can hurt you. We have to be on our guard. But it’s a great game to be involved in and we look forward to it.”

History has proved that Ireland perform very well as underdogs, let us all hope that tonight’s game ends with a very positive result for the men in green. Come on Ireland!!