A question of 'bottle'
Published 07/10/2011 | 05:00
THE common consensus across a variety of codes is that Irish sporting teams relish an uphill battle. When expectations are low, they thrive.
In Andorra this evening, Giovanni Trapattoni's men face a different challenge. They have already climbed a mountain to get here. Now, they have to face the inhabitants.
Ireland are overwhelming favourites, a situation where they are traditionally less comfortable, with historical examples well documented this week.
The encouraging point, however, is that under Trapattoni this group of players have successfully negotiated the banana skins.
Essentially, it is a consistent approach to the games against lesser- ranked sides that has propelled them into a position where Euro 2012 qualification is a real possibility. Three points from 12 in the four matches with top seeds Slovakia and Russia is a poor return. But Ireland have won every other game, an achievement that has kept the show on the road.
If they can live up to their odds of 1/16 this evening, and Slovakia somehow take three points from the unpredictable Russians, then the efficiency will send the third seeds into Tuesday's concluding match with Armenia knowing that a win would book a ticket to Poland & Ukraine.
Now that's vertigo-inducing talk.
Trapattoni anticipates a war. Andorra may be a quaint tax-free haven, with plenty of pleasant sights on days like yesterday when it was bathed in sunshine, but between the white lines, there will be no luxury. The Andorran football team like to leave their mark.
An aggressive approach on a bumpy pitch will make life difficult.
And there was an insight into the visiting manager's thinking when he was asked about the range of options vying to make his bench. After the 72-year-old named a team with no surprises, he was asked if picking the seven subs will be a headache.
With the likes of Stephen Hunt, Keith Fahey, Shane Long, James McCarthy -- who missed training last night with a head cold -- and Seamus Coleman missing out on the starting XI, Trapattoni will have to carefully consider the ingredients for Plan B.
"Do you know what type of game this will be?" he replied. "It will be a fight. The players who come on need to have the mentality and qualities to be ready for that straight away."
Immediately, Hunt's name was mentioned by a member of the audience. Trapattoni smiled. That was his line of thinking.
He believes this dalliance with the group minnows will be an occasion for the tried and trusted. So that's why Kevin Doyle gets the nod ahead of Long.
"In particular games, experience is a necessity," he stressed. "It's important that the manager knows when he has to think that way. At this moment, experience is more important than running quickly."
For similar reasoning, he resisted the temptation to rest Glenn Whelan who, like Doyle and Stephen Ward, is one booking away from suspension. In training earlier this week, Trapattoni tried Keith Fahey next to Keith Andrews and speculation grew from there to the extent that it actually unsettled Whelan.
The Irish boss was never going to take a course of action that could be construed as adopting a complacent attitude to this encounter.
"There are other managers or coaches who say that to go into a game with players that are like this (on a yellow) is dangerous," he said.
"They might say: 'Wait for Tuesday'. But if we lose this game, what have we to wait for? I'd rather use Glenn in this match because we need to get the three points. We can only think about the consequences afterwards."
Trapattoni acknowledged that if Ireland built themselves into a comfortable lead, then he might rest legs and lungs, with altitude another draining factor.
But he warned that it is dangerous territory to think in those terms and few anticipate such comfort.
Skipper Robbie Keane stressed that point on the bus journey from Barcelona to Andorra yesterday morning.
"I was speaking about it on the coach," he said. "We can't take these teams lightly. On paper, of course, we're the favourites. And before the game, myself and the senior players will be making that point to the others if they don't know already."
Keane struck the right chord in the preliminaries, saying all the right things and paying due respect to the hosts. Trapattoni went a step further by answering every local query in Spanish.
Nevertheless, they know that anything less than victory would be cataclysmic. And, for all the talk about the pitch, the weather, and the tiny capacity, the reality is that the Irish players are far, far superior.
It comes down to bottle. The conditions can be a leveller, but the real test could be good news from Slovakia.
The full-time whistle in Zilina will blow during the first half, and Trapattoni claims he won't tell his players the outcome unless there is a Slovakian success to report. With only 850 people inside the venue, news will filter onto the pitch fast.
In the best-case Slovakian scenario, Ireland's destiny would then be in their own hands. That would be a serious test of concentration. Around the camp this week there has been a notable buzz, a giddiness that naturally occurs when something so big is within reaching distance.
The challenge is to preserve the focus when it can so easily drift away.
What's going to happen? Andorra will defend deep, and Ireland will take an even more direct approach than usual. Doyle's contribution will be crucial, with the hope he can pick up the breaking ball and bring the others into play.
Aiden McGeady tortured the Andorrans in Dublin and, with Damien Duff now available on the opposite flank, the quality should be there to unlock a defence that has been picked open 17 times in this campaign.
Ireland are capable of scoring early and, while it would be optimistic to think they can score often, they should win by more than one and board the bus to Barcelona in good spirits.
Events in Slovakia will dictate the extent of their happiness.