Ahead of Euro 2012, my main fear for Ireland is not that we return after the group stages, but that we return with a feeling that, had we been a little braver, then we might well have achieved something memorable at this tournament. Given the rarity of our appearances at major competitions, that sense of regret would be depressing.
While the tactical straitjacket imposed by Giovanni Trapattoni does make us difficult to beat, it also makes it difficult for us to win games, particularly against the better sides. It's an unsettling fact that under Trapattoni, we have failed to beat any sides ranked above us in a competitive fixture. This does not augur well given that Ireland, currently ranked 18 in the FIFA rankings (a commendable achievement for the Italian) will face Italy, Croatia and Spain who rank 12th, eighth and first, respectively.
The Italian has developed a typically organised and disciplined side - a side that is capable of drawing with any side in the world. But in tournament football, you need to be able to win - and frankly, given the manager's caution, it's difficult to see how we can deliver on that score.
From an attacking sense, the Italian relies too heavily on the ability of his front four to conjure up goals without support from the rest of the side. His wingers, in particular, bear most of that burden - a tall order when you consider how much defensive work both are asked to do and how often the opposition counter the rather obvious threat by doubling up on both.
It's hard to shake the feeling that Ireland could do so much better if our full-backs were allowed to overlap with a little more freedom and if one of our central midfield players was allowed to get ahead of our forwards into advanced positions. Clearly, Trap does not like such a risky strategy - but to my mind, it's the key to the Irish side making progress in a holistic sense, and not just in Poland.
Having worked with the players for two qualifying campaigns, it'd be nice to think that Trap would trust them enough to maintain the shape and discipline he so craves - whilst making the kinds of mature and intelligent decisions on the field of play that might allow us to open up an opponent. It's a nice thought, but is a realistic one? And is it really realistic to expect the players to suddenly express themselves, especially those who seem happy to hide behind the manager's reputation?
Trapattoni fears that such free thinking can lead to dangerous gaps forming - gaps that teams who like to deploy players between the lines can exploit. However, the counter-argument for me is that even when we have tried to maintain our rigid 4-4-2 defensive rigour, clever sides and clever players have found and exploited spaces in front of our back four anyway. Teams playing variations on the 4-2-3-1 formation also tend to swamp us in midfield. Russia did so in Dublin and in Moscow - but perhaps more worryingly, so did the more limited Macedonians and the Slovaks, who failed to punish us largely due to their own lack of quality in forward positions. Better opponents await in Poland.
Ultimately, my real fear for this tournament is that on June 19, the day after the Italian game, we come home regretting that we never really had a go, particularly against sides like Croatia and Italy, who were not quite as good as their FIFA rankings suggested. It's a pessimistic outlook - but one that I would gladly see disproved.