Eight Ireland players on the brink of suspension
Trap caught between rock and hard place as key men gear up for vital first leg with risk of suspension hanging over heads
Published 10/11/2011 | 05:00
Ireland's journey towards Euro 2012 may seem easier than most -- but beware the yellow peril.
Before the bandwagon hits full speed, Giovanni Trapattoni must ensure that his squad's hopes and ambitions are not clamped on double yellow lines.
Ireland have eight players who are on the brink of suspension for the return leg of the play-off against Estonia -- Simon Cox, Darron Gibson, Stephen Hunt, Stephen Kelly, Aiden McGeady, Sean St Ledger, Keiren Westwood and Glenn Whelan.
Of these, the cases of Kelly, McGeady, St Ledger and Whelan are of most relevance, for they will be starters tomorrow night as well as in Tuesday's second leg, John O'Shea's fitness notwithstanding.
That is a list freighted with concern ahead of a devilish pair of internationals. Irish football has suffered enough from outrageously bad fortune in recent times to acknowledge that their play-off path will not be without obstacle.
Little wonder that when pressed as to what represented the most obvious threat towards Ireland's chances of achieving qualification, Trapattoni's assistant, Marco Tardelli, alighted upon the threat of suspension to any of his key players.
"The weather," he muttered unconvincingly. Mere cold should not detain his team's thoughts more than a second. "I hope the pitch is well," he continued. The surface of Tallinn's A Le Coq Arena will be as flawless as a baby's bottom. "Or maybe the yellow cards ... " he finally relented.
For a managerial duo who thrive on controlling so much of their enterprise, they must now submit to the capriciousness of an individual who may, in a fleeting moment, abandon reason for a mere second and suddenly wreak havoc with the collective.
Worse, the flaw may originate from refereeing (in)action.
It is a manager's recurring nightmare. Trapattoni's opinion on such matters is already familiar; experience has taught him that rarely does it pay to procrastinate rather than be proactive.
Ahead of the trip to Andorra last month, Trapattoni mused upon the prospective fates of a trio of players -- Whelan, Kevin Doyle and Ward -- who trod a disciplinary highwire only days before the final qualification game against Armenia in Dublin.
"We cannot worry about what might happen," Trapattoni stressed. "We will deal with any the consequences. In my experience it is dangerous to wait and risk losing a game. We need to get three points so now we play to win."
Last month was effectively a two-legged affair where any potentially fatal slip-up in the second outing could have derailed Ireland's qualification hopes; Trapattoni's private fears were confirmed when Ward was suspended for apparent simulation.
The ubiquitously versatile Kelly replaced Ward for the Armenia encounter in which Ireland eventually fumbled their way towards a winning conclusion, during the course of which Doyle found himself on the wrong end of the referee after his elbow found the wrong end of Karlen Mkrtchyan.
Ireland could cope with the loss of Ward, but being without Doyle could yet have enormous repercussions for a side whose record of goal-scoring could hardly be deemed prolific.
Hence, Robbie Keane's injury travails attracted Trapattoni's opprobrium as he faced the prospect of being without his first-choice strike partnership for this play-off.
Trapattoni has been down this route before with Ireland. Two years ago, Ireland had guaranteed a play-off spot ahead of the final group game against Montenegro. McGeady, Keith Andrews and Shay Given were then the main figures at risk with Paul McShane and Leon Best also one card away from suspension.
Trapattoni, contradicting his later stance, decided that discretion trumped valour, with McGeady and Andrews left out, albeit it must be remembered the Montenegro tie was effectively a dead rubber.
Best confirmed that Trapattoni had indicated that he would refuse to risk key players on yellow cards and only Given started that night, with Best deployed as a late substitute.
Circumstances are different this time around and all three players did play in the heartbreaking play-off defeat against France, although none could escape the peril of the deus ex machina that was Thierry Henry's fateful handball.
Nevertheless, Trapattoni would certainly agree with the thoughts of one of his predecessors as Irish manager.
Mick McCarthy suggested during his tenure that football authorities should implement a disciplinary amnesty ahead of the play-offs.
"I would prefer if yellow cards were scrubbed off for the play-offs," he once said.
"Cards don't carry over for the finals and I believe the play-offs should be treated in a similar way by FIFA."
McCarthy had approached Ireland's last successful play-off, against Iran, by refusing to countenance appearances for any of his four players -- Robbie Keane, Mark Kinsella, Jason McAteer and Kenny Cunningham -- in their final regular qualifying game.
He had direct experience of the dreaded yellow peril, when Robbie Keane had found himself suspended for the second leg of the play-off game away to Turkey in Bursa in Ireland's last European Championship play-offs in 1999.
Of course, McCarthy's desire for change with relation to play-off yellow cards has not come to pass, as England football fans currently anguishing over Wayne Rooney's red card in Montenegro recently would attest, or, indeed, those who remember Liam Brady's four-game ban following a red card against Bulgaria, later changed to a two-game ban, which effectively ruled him out of Euro '88.
Arguably the most infamous suspension affected Roy Keane, booked in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Juventus, which forced him out of Manchester United's 1999 final triumph against Bayern Munich.
A sympathetic referee will help and, in Hungary's young whistler, 35-year-old Viktor Kassai, who arbitrated last season's Champions League final, Ireland will encounter someone who is rarely profligate with cards, handing out an average of 4.35, although he did book Arsenal's Carlos Vera for diving when he had, in fact, been fouled during a group game against Braga.
He refereed the intense World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany without booking anyone during a Spanish victory that was not without its share of overzealous tackles.
In what will undoubtedly be a physical encounter against Estonia, Ireland will hope the referee displays a similarly laissez-faire attitude.
Ultimately though, Ireland's players must walk the potential minefield by balancing caution with commitment.
"We know about these and Stephen Ward played against Andorra with a yellow card," stresses Tardelli, though Trap's thoughts are unlikely to be influenced by the yellow peril, particularly as Jonathan Walters is favoured to start ahead of Simon Cox.
"We have good options to change the players and they must play very hard and very tough during the match.
"At this moment those players must forget the yellow card and they must go on the pitch without this in their mind. We cannot say to the players, 'don't tackle.' For us we must have no regrets."