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Spain vs. Ireland: ‘Like Muhammad Ali fighting a dwarf’

Spain's Cesc Fabregas (2nd L) celebrates next to team mates Andres Iniesta (L), David Silva and Alvaro Arbeloa (R) after scoring against Italy during their Group C Euro 2012 soccer match at the PGE Arena stadium in Gdansk, June 10, 2012.

TONY GENTILE/REUTERS

There are losses, and there are losses.

To say Ireland's tournament didn't exactly get off to the kind of start the team had envisioned would be an understatement of the most epic proportions. The Irish didn't just lose to Croatia last Sunday, they were embarrassed, and to make matters worse, it was the one game that Giovanni Trapattoni's team really had to win if it is going to have any kind of realistic chance to make the quarter-finals.

Now it is faced with the David vs. Goliath task of upending defending world and European champion Spain to force its way back into the reckoning. Unlikely? Not according to World Cup-winning Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque.

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"I am worried about every aspect of our opponents," he said in the buildup to Thursday's contest. "Ireland have more than just one threat. They have tall, strong players and are dangerous on the wings. Their attackers also offer a lot. We are going to have difficulties in this game as in any other but we hope to be able to combat those difficulties."

Del Bosque has all manner of ways to do that, with arguably the greatest collection of talent in the tournament, especially in midfield. The Spaniard surprised many in the opening game against Italy when his side took the field without a recognized striker, and though the tactical switch didn't pay off with a full three points, it did show the options available to him, and it was met with some praise in the Spanish press.

"Playing without a frontman is neither sacrilegious nor unusual," wrote El Pais Thursday. "Classical teams like River Plate in the 1940s, Hungary in the '50s, Real Madrid in the '60s, Brazil and the Netherlands in the '70s and Barcelona nowadays have all done the same. The current Spain side – along with all of those mentioned before – are as ingenious as they are efficient."

It remains to be seen if Del Bosque will try the tactic again, but Ireland cannot afford to worry about what Spain does. Trapattoni's team needs a win in the worst way possible, but though unlikely the Irish like nothing more than pulling off an upset, such as their wins over England at Euro 88 and Italy at World Cup 94.

Former Ireland manager Eoin Hand has no doubt where a victory over the reigning world champions would rank.

"If this team were to win then that would, without doubt, be the most incredible result any Irish team has ever produced and I don't say that lightly," he told UEFA.com. "And that is an incredible motivation for these players."

Spain's player to watch: Sergio Busquets

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Of the 672 passes that Spain completed against Italy, nobody made a bigger contribution than the Barcelona midfielder, who completed 115, to join teammate Xavi Hernandez, who had 113, and his former Barca coach Pep Guardiola as the only Spanish player with over 100 completed passes in match. It remains to be seen what he can do for an encore against Ireland.

Ireland's player to watch: Robbie Keane

For a team that desperately needs a result, it may just be the captain's time to deliver. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker has scored a record 53 goals for his country, but grabbing one or two on Thursday against Spain may be the only thing stopping Ireland from being back home this time next week.

Did you know?

After scoring the only goal against Croatia, Sean St. Ledger has now scored in three games for Ireland - none ended in victory.

Quotable

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"There is no threat from Ireland. Ireland cannot win this match. It's like Muhammad Ali fighting a dwarf."

Former Ireland striker Michael Robinson, who now works for Spanish TV as a pundit, talking to Spanish news agency EFE.

Prediction

Spain 2-0 Ireland

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