Bravery in dugout crucial if Trap is to avoid disaster
THE protracted honeymoon is over. From a position of relative serenity, the success of Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure as Ireland manager hinges on events in Zilina tonight.
It may seem like a dramatic statement but then the tone for this Euro 2012 campaign was always going to be shaped by the outcome of the quick-fire double-header with Russia and Slovakia. Already, Ireland cannot reach the four-point total that the Italian set as his target for this pivotal week.
Should the visitors come away from Slovakia tonight with nothing, then the considerable outlay on the 71-year-old will suddenly look very foolish. Qualification is his endgame. Nothing less will suffice this time around.
Of course, Il Capo has been around the game long enough to know that the margin between success and failure can sometimes be very thin. A win for Ireland tonight and everything will be okay. A draw and the roadshow will roll on, albeit with added scrutiny of the friendly meeting with Norway next month, where fans will look for a window to the future.
Losing is an unthinkable scenario for Trapattoni and the FAI. He has spent two and a half years building a team that is strong enough to secure a passage to a major competition. That's why the first 60 minutes last Friday were so humiliating, so deeply worrying. On that evening, the margin between success and failure was gaping.
We knew that his team weren't pretty to watch. As he repeatedly states, anyone looking for entertainment can go to the theatre or the opera instead. For him, the result was everything and Trapattoni was sure he had constructed the system to deliver that precious commodity. The players, who exuded confidence in the build-up to the Russian encounter -- remember, Liam Lawrence was targeting six points -- shared in that belief.
It was shattered as Russia exposed the deficiencies and ran riot accordingly, thus instigating a soul-searching post-mortem in the Irish dressing-room that came through in the post-match media reflections.
Richard Dunne admitted that Ireland were one-dimensional, cuttingly speaking of players turning their backs while Shay Given launched a rocket in the direction of Kevin Doyle.
Glenn Whelan, a loyal servant of Trapattoni, suggested that he was acting under orders so "what can you do?", when Ireland's unimaginative midfield play was discussed. Even Aiden McGeady said that "maybe" the decision to change formation in the final quarter of the Russian lesson came too late in the day.
On Saturday morning, aware of such comments, Trapattoni called his players together in an attempt to get the show back on the road. He says that his favoured rigid 4-4-2 system will be retained for Zilina tonight, and Robbie Keane last night declared that the players were on message.
Nevertheless, the seeds of doubt have been sown. In this high-stakes encounter, the loyalty to Trapattoni's doctrine will be tested, just as it was before that tempestuous night in Paris last November. The manager will argue that his approach has never failed Ireland on the road.
After all, he is yet to lose a competitive game on his travels since taking the job. Compare that with the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, where Steve Staunton's men lost three games from five and only won once -- courtesy of that last-minute goal in San Marino.
Essentially, the system works away from home, where his well-drilled troops can soak up pressure and look to hit their opposition on the counter-attack. Central to the tactic is the selfless running of Kevin Doyle, who provides an effective out-ball when backs are against the wall.
For all Shane Long's qualities, he is not a like-for-like replacement, so it's possible that the method will need revision here. Ireland will need more subtlety to make inroads into Slovakian territory.
And, in truth, the most shocking aspect of Friday was that the oft-trumpeted organisation was gone. Trapattoni has conceded that there was a litany of errors in the set-piece that gave Russia the lead. If Ireland lose their shape, then the system is redundant. It contradicts itself.
Does the manager have faith in the ability of his players? The suspicion is that he remains wary of their technical limitations. Some in the dressing-room feel they are better players than they are given credit for.
Trapattoni never doubts their commitment, though. Repeatedly, he speaks of the belief that exists in the dressing-room.
Yet in the aftermath of the loss to Dick Advocaat's impressive Russian side, the Irish boss encouraged his players not to read the newspapers.
"You must all excuse me for what I now say," said Trapattoni as he explained the decision to a crowded media room in the narrow confines of the Zilina Stadium, "I don't mean to be offensive.
"After the game, the first thing I said to the players is that they must see the game again. But, psychologically, you must not read the newspapers. They can be psychologically damaged when they read bad, bad, bad."
It was an odd revelation from Trapattoni who, from the outset, told his players to be relaxed about the media rather than getting sucked into worrying about it.
The ironic thing about it is that the players, for once, seem to accept that they deserved negative feedback. Whelan admitted that Friday was a "kick up the backside", alluding, perhaps, to the suspicion that people got sucked in by the hype that arose from the Paris fallout.
For a spring and summer, the feeling was that the Irish players were the victim of a miscarriage of justice. In short, they had the right formula, but just needed a bit of luck.
A spring and summer of friendlies passed by without experimentation. If it ain't broke etc. Friday changed that perception.
Trapattoni acknowledges that Russia got the gameplan right, but in the same breath produced a range of excuses. He spoke of deflections and of lethargy in the Irish ranks derived from inactivity at club level.
Both he and the players are convinced they can do better. The issue is whether there is consensus on the method of delivering that improvement.
They better find it quickly, as a nervy evening lies in store. The gut feeling is that this Irish team can avoid the nightmare scenario of taking zero from a possible six. But it will require bravery both on and off the park.
PREDICTION: Slovakia 1 Ireland 1
Slovakia v Republic of Ireland
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