Daniel McDonnell: Greece is perfect opportunity for Trapattoni to experiment and win fans back
IT was a year ago this week that the Aviva Stadium, finally, began to feel like home to Ireland's footballers.
The celebration party otherwise known as the second leg of the Euro 2012 play-off with Estonia replaced the prevailing mood of tension with encouragement. It was, we hoped, the start of something special.
Twelve months down the line, the vibe is different. Tickets are not being sold for some parts of the stadium ahead of tomorrow's encounter with Greece, a fixture that was always going to be a hard sell. It's clear that the public confidence which existed in the wake of European Championship qualification has been chipped away by the setbacks of the intervening period.
After four defeats from six competitive games and a brush with the sack, you can understand why Marco Tardelli was asked yesterday if he would be happy to wave goodbye to 2012. The Ireland assistant delivered a surprisingly emphatic response to the contrary.
"For me, it's been a fantastic year," he replied.
He justified his view by referencing the integration of younger players this autumn. Certainly, the promotion of James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman, in particular, came from a turbulent period, although it leads to the obvious question of why it took so long.
Nevertheless, by accident or design, we are now in a situation where the Greece game should hopefully provide a window to the future.
There were not enough bodies in Malahide yesterday for an 11 versus 11 match as Paul McShane and Jon Walters sat it out due to injury – the latter was last night ruled out with a knee problem – but it appeared that Giovanni Trapattoni was assessing a possible starting XI with some interesting elements.
After the record home thrashing at the hands of the Germans, disgruntled punters made their feelings clear on the current set-up. If they choose to come back, or decide to watch this game on TV, they'll be looking for signs that it is worth returning in 2013.
In that respect, they will hope that Trapattoni and Tardelli can take some lessons from this low-key encounter in several key departments.
1 SHANE LONG
The West Brom frontman is the form Irish striker in the Premier League, and he was partnered in attack by Simon Cox yesterday.
Trapattoni went to watch the Tipp native on Saturday in the Baggies' clash with Wigan and spoke at length about him 24 hours later, highlighting areas in which he could improve while pointing out that he has progressed considerably in his time with the English midlanders.
Ireland have looked lethargic in the course of their troubles with the big guns, and the injection of pace which Long brings could definitely add something to the team.
He cut a frustrated figure when he was introduced in the Germany match – it was already game over at that point – and he deserves to start this week. He impressed from the outset when given the nod against Oman, and more of the same here could build Trapattoni's trust in the 25-year-old.
While he did praise Long at the weekend, his team selections indicate he still has some reservations. "Maybe it's possible he starts in the first half," said Tardelli. "It's possible to play on the left or right because he is very quick, but I think Shane is a striker and I prefer that he plays striker. If he starts, it will be there."
2 CIARAN CLARK
Trapattoni is likely to name his team this afternoon and there were hints yesterday that Clark could figure.
In training, he was paired alongside stand-in skipper John O'Shea, and if they renew their partnership then Ireland will be fielding two regular Premier League centre-halves for the first time in recent memory (O'Shea's link-up with Richard Dunne at the start of Trapattoni's tenure came when the Waterford man was still a right-back at Old Trafford).
Clark is by no means the finished article and comes into this game after being part of the rearguard that shipped three goals to Manchester United on Saturday, but the level at which he operates on a week-to-week basis makes a strong case for his inclusion ahead of Toronto-based Darren O'Dea.
At the very least, he should be given the opportunity to audition. His brief involvement at the beginning of 2011 came at left-back, and the Ireland boss has said more than once that O'Dea is closer to his typical vision of a centre-half.
With doubts hanging over Dunne's well-being, it would be a serious boost if Clark made a contribution that added to the viable list of alternatives.
3 WIDE BOYS
James McClean and Robbie Brady manned the flanks in the 'A' team yesterday, and selecting both of them would qualify as bold in the context of the manager's previous approach to friendly internationals.
Judging by Trapattoni's comments on Sunday, Brady is certain to be given the nod; the Italian was an instant admirer of the Manchester United starlet who made a welcome loan switch to Hull last week.
He often complains that his younger players are shy, so Brady's infectious confidence and willingness to shoot makes him a Trap favourite.
Trap's complicated relationship with McClean is well documented and so too are the Derry lad's struggles in his second season with Sunderland.
However, it was always going to be difficult for him to maintain the standard of last term, and he did recently reveal that his Irish issues have affected his morale.
A prominent showing tomorrow could benefit club and country. Damien Duff is sorely missed and the experiment with Simon Cox in his place has not worked.
4 WES HOOLAHAN
The Norwich playmaker has the know-how to give Ireland a viable Plan B, yet he's ranked closer to Plan W in the course of his lengthy exile from senior team plans.
It is unclear if he will be involved in the first half, but Trapattoni says he will get a minimum of 45 minutes to show what he can do; considering he was attracting a fan club to his schoolboy games at Belvedere then he is capable of getting a few extra bodies through the turnstiles.
The bigger picture with Hoolahan's favoured position behind the striker is assessing where it leaves Robbie Keane. The captain's exploits with LA Galaxy over the weekend prove that his eye for goal is as sharp as ever, but Trapattoni frequently uses Keane as a link between midfield and attack.
There is an argument which says that Hoolahan is better suited to that role. As it stands, Simon Cox, who could start, is the gaffer's favoured back-up for Ireland's record goal-scorer. Hoolahan's performance tomorrow will determine if it stays that way.
5 THE james McCARTHY FACTOR
The birthday boy – McCarthy turned 22 yesterday – was accompanied by Trapattoni on his walk to the team bus. They were engaged in an animated discussion, with the tracksuited Ireland boss at pains to make a point.
After a couple of false starts, he is now enamoured with the Wigan star and is ready to break up his Glenn Whelan/Keith Andrews central partnership to make room for his talent.
His task now is to figure out who of the senior pair best complements what the Glaswegian has to offer. Evidently, he is leaning towards more towards Whelan, feeling that if he can protect the back four then McCarthy can be given licence to take some risks.
McCarthy is a very disciplined performer for his employers. Trapattoni is keen for him to develop his personality and really take command of matches.
There's no better place to start than a November friendly that requires inspiration to lift the mood – and give the public reasons to be enthusiastic about what 2013 may bring.