Spain v Ireland countdown: 3 key battles in tonight's match

We break down the areas in which this evening’s game is likely to be won and lost.

Pique has looked less than assured in defence at times this season.
Pique has looked less than assured in defence at times this season.

WITH THE GAME only a few hours away, we’re previewing three battles whose outcome is likely have a big influence on tonight’s clash between Ireland and Spain.

Note also that we’ve bravely decided to publish the piece before the line-ups have been announced, so we cannot yet confirm that Keane et al have been given the nod to start.

Robbie Keane v Gerard Pique

It was not so long ago that Pique was being hailed by some critics as being one of the best central defenders in the world, but his form has dipped in recent months, and this was reflected by his less-than-assured display against Italy. However, even when he’s not on top form, Pique remains an excellent defender, who has improved significantly since his less-than-memorable stint at Old Trafford.

Keane, meanwhile, is another player who currently has his fair share of critics, many of whom suggested he should be dropped for this game. Nevertheless, his appearance at the most recent pre-match press conference would indicate Trap is prepared to keep faith with Ireland’s record goalscorer.

Keane will need to make the most of every ball that comes to him, and not engage in the type of indulgent flicks and overly complicated passes that he is sometimes prone to, particularly if he is deployed as the lone striker.

The toughest task for Pique, on the other hand, may well be to ensure he remains focused for the majority of the 90 minutes, and doesn’t let Keane’s customary clever movement outfox him. It is conceivable that he could suffer a loss of concentration though, given how little he will presumably be required to do for most of the match, with Spain likely to dominate both in terms of possession and territory.

Glenn Whelan v Xavi

(Whelan failed to stop Modric from playing at times in Ireland’s opening group game)

Whelan is Ireland’s primary defensive midfielder, whose main task is to disrupt the opposition’s attacks, but he was ineffective at times against Croatia, as their playmaker, Luka Modric, was allowed to dictate the play for long periods of the game. And Xavi, tellingly, plays a relatively similar role to the one Modric fulfils for Croatia.

On paper, it seems like a non-contest, as Xavi is by far the more talented and esteemed of the two footballers. Nevertheless, Whelan has shown in the past that he has the capability to stop more talented players than him from prevailing – particularly for Stoke, for whom he has excelled this year.

But if Xavi plays to his full potential and passes the ball as well as he can, it’s difficult to see how Whelan and Ireland in general can avoid defeat.

Nonetheless, those writing off Whelan already should consider the praise that his manager at club level, Tony Pulis, heaped on him earlier this year. He said:

“Every time you ask Glenn to step up to that next level, he does it. He’s a good lad, very single-minded. He’s got that Celtic blood in him and the determination to prove people wrong – including myself at times.”

Richard Dunne v Andrés Iniesta

Iniesta was one of the many Spain players who appeared to be given license to roam against Italy, and it seems likely that the attacking midfielder will have a similar level of freedom against Ireland.

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Like so many of the Spanish players, his skill level and technique is hugely impressive, though with only 2 goals in 27 appearances for Barcelona last term, his goalscoring record is perhaps the one facet of his game he could improve. Yet Iniesta is undoubtedly a creator of goals, first and foremost.

Dunne would presumably relish the far more physical encounter with someone of Torres’ ilk rather than dealing with a player possessing the trickery and pace of the little Spanish midfielder.

And while he has been Ireland’s hero many times in the past, Dunne is playing on the back of an indifferent season with Aston Villa in which his side were lucky to avoid relegation, although to be fair, he was seriously hampered by injuries throughout the campaign.

Moreover, he was also part of a defence that was a pale shadow of its normally rock solid self against Croatia, all too often backing off the opposition attackers and allowing them to cause considerable damage in the process.

Therefore, if Dunne is to stop Iniesta and co from running riot, he needs to disregard his below-par form at club level and perform to a similar degree to which he famously displayed against Russia in the qualifiers.

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Paul Fennessy

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