Euro 2012: Is Robbie ready to rumble?
THE state of the defence has dominated the first two weeks of Ireland's Euro 2012 preparations. So much so, in fact, that the fitness of Robbie Keane has managed to slip under the radar.
Giovanni Trapattoni will set up his side to cope with and frustrate his Group C opponents in Poland, but the reality is that three draws will most likely not be enough to secure progression to the knockout stages. Ireland need goals and, for that precious commodity, the Irish manager still relies on Keane.
Mick McCarthy was in the same boat in 2002. Ten years on, Trapattoni has a deeper array of options at his disposal, with Shane Long and Jonathan Walters emerging as competition for Kevin Doyle. Still, when it comes to the highest level, and the subtle touch and movement that is required to break down the big nations, Keane remains the Italian's ace in the pack.
So, we now reach the big question that was posed when Ireland's skipper waved goodbye to the Premier League and said hello to the bright lights of Los Angeles. Does life in the MLS provide adequate preparation for a tournament of this stature?
We will find out the answer in 10 days' time. Last Friday, Keane was asked how fresh he was feeling. "I'll tell you after the tournament," he joked, before stressing that he felt in fine fettle.
Nevertheless, the 31-year-old doesn't quite look as lean as some of those around him, or indeed like he did himself after last November's play-off win over Estonia, a game which came in the middle of a hectic time at his new club which ended with MLS Cup success.
From there, it's been a slow burn to June. Hence, his desire to secure a loan move to the Premier League and a run of games. The financial incentive was minimal; the real priority was building towards Poland. By his own admission, Keane was finding the lengthy MLS pre-season a bit of a drag.
A stellar show at Aston Villa offered serious encouragement, but it's hard to locate the positives in his subsequent outings for the Galaxy. If the pre-season is a trot, then the early stages of their season are nothing more than a canter.
This is the problem with the MLS, and its desire to become respected as a serious football league. The end of season play-off system -- where the top five sides from the nine-team conferences enter a knockout decider -- means that the whole purpose of the campaign is essentially to battle for seeding.
LA Galaxy's form this year has been so dreadful that they are now bottom of the Western Conference. For the defending champions in another country, it would represent a massive crisis; yet Galaxy know they have enough time and quality in their ranks to creep into the top five. There's been a hint of complacency about their performances, a sense they are going through the motions at this stage of the campaign. Keane and David Beckham have both been criticised under that heading.
Coach Bruce Arena said the Dubliner was short of "confidence" in March, a comment that has rarely been aimed in the direction of Ireland's all-time record goalscorer. Keane responded with a brace against DC United, and a goal against New England. Yet he fired a blank in his remaining six MLS matches before coming to Ireland and, in stat-driven America, the little details don't make for pleasant reading.
He didn't even register a shot on goal in two of those games; the encounters with Kansas and Colorado. Considering how easy Keane found it when he moved to America last August, it's a damning reflection on his form. But then, maybe he's only ever had the eyes on one prize in 2012. After all, he's already won the American game's highest accolade. Indeed, around the time of the Villa loan, there were suggestions he was already hankering to get back to the serious business on this side of the pond.
Players at the highest level have never been fitter and such figures as Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba could be on the front cover of body-building magazines as well as on the back page of newspapers. But, in Keane's case, it has always been about brain rather than brawn.
How has he looked over the past two weeks? Well, it's obvious Keane retains the poacher's eye when a situation presents itself. In Tuesday's friendly stroll over a local bunch of lower league players, he struck twice in a 45-minute cameo, and the first was a real cracker, as he dropped the shoulder, left a Tuscan defender for dead and smashed the ball into the top corner from just inside the box. Few 'keepers would have got near it. Alas, the quality of the opposition makes it hard to get too carried away about his contribution.
Against Bosnia, he again demonstrated his genius with that brilliant reverse pass for Damien Duff which should have led to a first-half goal. Otherwise, he found it hard to find space in the right areas, although he linked play well, and was withdrawn after 60 minutes.
Keane arrived with a hamstring problem, which he attributes to an astroturf surface, but he quickly returned to full training. He pointed out that people outside the game don't realise the value of one or two day's rest. "It's amazing the difference it can make," he stressed.
He did acknowledge that he was really looking forward to getting stuck into tournament mode, explaining that he always feels sharper when the games come thick and fast. A contrast, perhaps, to his current schedule in America.
"I've been like that my whole career," he explained. "I've always enjoyed when you play Saturday and Tuesday, and then the following Saturday. I've always felt better when I play a lot of games on the bounce."
In that context, the major tournament stage should suit Keane, but he must use the rest of the preparations to ensure he is in perfect condition.
If one or two days can improve a man's condition, then it's imperative that his body benefits from the next 10, for if Keane struggles in Poland, then so will Ireland.