Tuesday 28 February 2017

Defiant Trap goes on the defensive

Irish boss sticking rigidly to his philosophy ahead of make-or-break Euro showdown

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

A regime-defining evening is upon us. The retreat from Moscow will be painful for Giovanni Trapattoni if it all goes wrong in the Luzhniki Stadium.

Friday's struggle with Slovakia has brought his tenure to the ultimate crossroads, with Ireland facing a 90-minute challenge to keep their European Championship hopes alive.

Defeat would spell the end for those ambitions and, by extension, the Italian experiment. Victory would ensure Trapattoni's retention and put Ireland back in control of their destiny. A draw would delay any decision for another month.

The 72-year-old chose the eve of the game to mount a strong defence of his philosophy, a topic that has been up for general debate since Friday evening and has clearly pricked his attention. Essentially, he was on the defensive about his team being defensive.

Trapattoni was asked if a seventh consecutive clean sheet was the immediate priority. He looked to be prepared for such a query.

"No," he snapped, "because then you write immediately, we play defensively. If you look at our group, who has scored more goals? (Ireland have). That is our mentality.

"Every game, we go on the pitch to win -- not contain to get a result. In 25 or 30 years as a coach, if I only had what you call a defensive attitude, then I wouldn't have achieved what I have achieved. That is a simple philosophy. Score more goals and concede less."

Nothing comes easily here, though, with the vagaries of a plastic pitch adding further intrigue.

In an era when footballers are trained to say that every away venue is a difficult place to go to, the Russian capital is one place deserving of such a tag. Slovakia's win on the plastic pitch 12 months ago defied all the statistics; Ireland will confound logic if they repeat the feat. "It can happen," stressed Trapattoni. "Why not? There is no unbeatable team."

Of course, much of his mission as Ireland boss has been to mould his charges into a unit that is very difficult to beat.

The initial belief that he was close to achieving it was shattered last October when Dick Advocaat's men ran rings around the Irish midfield and stuck three past Shay Given at the Aviva Stadium. In the return, the value of his work in the subsequent 11 months will be strongly examined.

Losing Sean St Ledger and John O'Shea has severely weakened Trap's defensive hand, although, in that part of the pitch in particular, the manager likes to espouse the virtues of the system rather than the players.

It is about each individual understanding their role in the machine. The ideal scenario is that the back four are programmed well enough to cope with the fact they have never actually started a game together before.

Darren O'Dea, an able deputy in June's win over Macedonia, steps in for St Ledger, yet the pace of the Russian front line will be a contrast from what he encountered in Skopje.

BLEAK

Meanwhile, Stephen Kelly, who has suffered a bleak time at club level after Martin Jol's appointment at Fulham, gets the nod ahead of Kevin Foley at full-back. Height was the decisive factor.

"This team is also big and tall, and they have one or two players taller than us," replied the Irish manager, explaining his decision. "Like Slovakia, they are more dangerous at heading the ball."

That may be so, although it's possible that, in general play, Kelly's main task this evening will be keeping Andrey Arshavin quiet. Lesser players have managed that when the Arsenal man is having one of his temperamental days.

Under Advocaat, however, the mercurial talent is a happier chap. He was widely hailed in Russia for his contribution to last Friday's win over Macedonia.

Trapattoni was enthused by the Macedonian resistance and, having identified weaknesses in opposing 'keepers earlier in the campaign, he will surely have noted that frailties of Advocaat's stand-in, Vyacheslav Malafeev.

The Zenit stopper has been the subject of scathing personal criticism and failed to convince in the absence of the inspirational Igor Akinfeev.

On a number of occasions, Malafeev opted to punch the ball clear rather than catching it. You suspect that getting crosses into the box will be a priority.

Much will revolve around the ability of Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady to probe. The latter is selected ahead of Stephen Hunt for what Trapattoni perceives to be a superior goalscoring threat, in addition to the feeling that his club, Spartak Moscow, play on the unusual playing surface.

Whether that is enough to override the fitness concerns he expressed after the Slovakian game is another matter.

Kevin Doyle was sluggish too, and Ireland cannot function on foreign soil without the Wolves man in optimum condition. His tireless running has been key to Trapattoni's unbeaten away record, but there remains a degree of confusion about his well-being.

Doyle is likely to be ploughing even more of a lone furrow here, with Robbie Keane sure to drop deeper in a bid to tackle the numerical imbalance facing Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.

On Saturday, the manager was so worried about the Wexford native that he floated the possibility of lining out with Simon Cox in his starting XI.

Asked if the selection of Doyle was drawn from confidence that the 27-year-old was fit enough to play, Trapattoni responded by saying that several players were short of their best at this time of year, and pointed to his skipper -- next to him at the top table -- as another example. Hardly encouraging.

Still, this Irish group have a habit of performing when they enter a big game with the look of a wounded animal.

Keane, like Given (pictured left), is carrying a back problem that has hindered his preparations. Shrugging off any negative thoughts, he delivered a rallying cry.

"Don't think for one second that we're coming here to lie down," he warned, "or thinking that Russia are going to roll us over. Believe you me, the players know we're coming here to get a result.

"There's no reason we can't. Our performances away from home in this campaign and the last campaign have been very good. We're coming here with a lot of confidence. Sure, it's always nicer to come in after a win, but the most important thing about Friday is that we didn't lose."

Keane has erased all memory of his last visit here in 2002, a 4-2 loss that brought that crop down to earth after their exploits at the World Cup.

It would be fitting if this trip was the catalyst for a long-awaited major tournament summer, yet Ireland will have to overcome all the odds to make it possible. Get ready for some nervous viewing.

Irish Independent

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