By ADAM SERRANO
CARSON, Calif. — Faced with one of the toughest groups in the 2012 European Championship, Ireland captain and Los Angeles Galaxy striker Robbie Keane knows that his national team is in for a battle — and that is something that suits Keane and the rest of his Irish side just fine.
The Irish open their tournament on June 10 when they face off against Croatia and were given no favors after being drawn into Group C with defending European and World Cup champions Spain, four time World Cup winners Italy and the Croats, all three of which are ranked among the top 12 teams in the world.
Keane joins Ireland as the current leading goal scorer for the Galaxy with three goals and wasted no time tallying for his national team as he scored twice in a 5-0 friendly win over a select Tuscany XI on Tuesday. The Irishman's performance also put to rest injury concerns over a strained hamstring that prevented him from playing in the Galaxy's last match before departing for Dublin.
Keane and the rest of Giovanni Trappattoni's Irish side will face Hungary on June 2nd before starting their Euro campaign begins and understand that they will need to be at their best if they are to qualify from an unforgiving group.
"It’s going to be good, we probably have the easiest group with Spain, Italy and Croatia so it should be easy for us to qualify," Keane joked with L.A.-based reporters before departing for Ireland. "But certainly, we’ve got the toughest group, but we’re born underdogs, and I think that with the national team, we’ve always done better when we’re underdogs, so hopefully that will be case."
The 2012 European championship represents the first major international tournament for Keane — and Ireland — since 2002, when he tallied three goals for his country in the World Cup. Since then, Keane has developed from bright-eyed goal scorer to a grizzled captain who has been a fixture with the Irish for a decade.
"I’m just the same person that I’ve always been. When you start changing up, that’s when people look at you differently," said Keane. "It’s a different role for me than 10 years ago, because now I’m the captain and there is a lot of responsibility, but I’ve had for my whole career so it doesn’t make any difference for me."
Perhaps even more important than Keane for Ireland's success at the Euros will be the coaching of Trappatoni. Since taking the helm after Ireland's humiliating Euro 2008 qualification campaign, the Italian manager has led Ireland to the brink of the 2010 World Cup and to the grand stage of Euro 2012.
Under Trappatoni's tutelage, Ireland is currently on a 13-game unbeaten run, something that Keane believes comes from Trappatoni's knowledge of the Irish player.
"I once watched a program when I was back in England of the best managers ever and they had a half an hour show on him. You actually don’t realize how much stuff he’s won as a manager," Keane said, referring to Trappatoni's success with Juventus and Inter Milan. "As players, you know exactly what you have to do when you go out on the pitch [with him]. Some managers try to overcomplicate things and it confuses a lot of players, but with Trappatoni, you know exactly what you have to do."
Regardless of Trappatoni's presence, Keane admits that the Irish "are not stupid' and are fully aware that qualification from the tournament's toughest group will be difficult. Even so, the Irish captain maintains that success can only be measured by how close Ireland get to the trophy.
"You have to go into these tournaments, even if you're underdogs, believing that you can win every game. There's no one player that will go into the tournament thinking that 'We'd be happy to finish second or third or whatever,'" Keane said. "Are we the favorites? Of course we're not the favorites, but do we have a chance? Of course we have a chance. We've got a chance like everyone else."
For inspriation, Keane turns to the Greece side that won Euro 2004 against all odds as a model for Ireland to emulate.
"They will probably never, ever do that again," Keane said. "So why can't we?"