Irish in rude health despite Trap blow
WHEN Dr Alan Byrne walks into an Ireland press conference, the natural reaction is to fear the worst.
His unexpected presence is never likely to be accompanied by good news.
Back in May, it was Byrne who detailed Shane Duffy's near-death experience, a revelation that turned a routine gathering into something far more serious.
So when Byrne and Marco Tardelli walked into the new auditorium at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, with Giovanni Trapattoni nowhere to be seen, there was a horrible few seconds of uncertainty before the doctor launched into an explanation for the manager's absence. A severe case of food poisoning, he said.
Considering Byrne had spent the night in the Mater Private, with Trapattoni undergoing a series of tests which included an electrocardiography, it was apparent that nothing was being left to chance. He is a 71-year-old man, after all, despite his zest for life.
All going to plan, Il Capo will be back on the sideline for this evening's joust with Argentina at the renovated Lansdowne Road. If his health prevents him from doing so, then the show will go on. It always does in football. Indeed, after Byrne ran through a series of questions on the manager's vomiting and nausea, there was little else for the FAI to do but hand over to Tardelli, who went ahead and named the starting XI, a selection which Trapattoni had scribbled from his hospital bed that morning. "I'm not in charge," stressed the assistant.
Without meaning to seem insensitive, the FAI knew when they appointed a veteran manager that there's always the danger that health issues could interrupt the normal flow of activity. They learned that the hard way when the late Bobby Robson was unable to fully act as a mentor for Steve Staunton. Failure followed. It was a rudderless ship.
Trapattoni's health scare makes you appreciate just what a transformation this Irish team has undergone during his tenure.
In May, he spoke of how the penny has finally dropped for his squad, in terms of understanding his system and what it entails. His satisfaction was apparent during the comfortable victories over Algeria and Paraguay, especially the manner in which a newcomer like Paul Green seamlessly fitted into the set-up. It all clicked into place.
That's why there was no sense of panic about the manager's unavailability for yesterday's session and the possibility that he might be stuck eating hospital food instead of delivering the pre-match team-talk this evening. By now, the players know what is expected of them.
Certainly, there was no great surprise in the team selection, with the only talking point being the inclusion of Green at the expense of Darron Gibson to cover for the injured Glenn Whelan.
Nine members of the starting XI from Paris were intended to be involved from the outset, with Whelan and Sean St Ledger enforced absentees.
Alas, in keeping with the week, those plans were waylaid in the training that followed, with the FAI last night stating that Liam Lawrence incurred a groin problem and has gone back to the UK; Keith Fahey, who also made a favourable impression on management in May, gets the nod in his place. It is a massive opportunity for the Birmingham midfielder.
On the plus side, Richard Dunne satisfied medical staff that he can start in the heart of the defence, but Kevin Doyle will be assessed this morning before a final decision on his participation is made. Cillian Sheridan, who played for the U-21s against Estonia yesterday evening, is on stand-by.
Overall, it's a strong team for this time of year and, backed up by skipper Robbie Keane, Tardelli asserted that the players are focused on their responsibilities with just three weeks until the competitive fare begins in Armenia.
"I spoke with Giovanni and he gave me the team. He feels well and I think everything is okay," said Tardelli. "I think he'll be at the match. He is very strong."
And then Tardelli, touted by Liam Brady as the eventual successor to Trapattoni, tried to get on with discussing the forgotten issue of the match. The decision to opt for Green ahead of Gibson may ultimately have come from the Mater, but he is well in tune with the manager's thinking. They were wowed by the manner in which the late bloomer adapted to his task in the two RDS games back in May.
"Paul Green is playing well," he said. "I saw the match against Leeds at the weekend and I thought he played very well. We decided that he will play with Keith Andrews in this game and then maybe in the second half, Gibson will play.
"They are different players. Green is a player who puts more pressure on, Gibson is maybe technically better. But they are two good players and as it's a friendly match we need to see players better. Maybe in the second half, we will see some of the younger ones."
In terms of the outcome, the holding midfielders will be pivotal. While it's unclear what part Lionel Messi will play in the game, Tardelli envisages that Andrews and Green will be tasked with shackling the Barcelona star as opposed to pulling out one of the defenders to go man to man.
Retaining shape will be vital then, against an Argentine team that operated off instinct rather than organisation in the World Cup. The departure of Diego Maradona -- who Tardelli rates as a superior player to Messi -- may remove a certain amount of madness, but his temporary replacement, Sergio Batista, has had little time to implement wide-ranging changes.
"They want to show the world that they are a very good team because in the World Cup they failed," said Tardelli. "Their players are proud. But if we play like we did against Paraguay and Algeria, then it is possible to play a good match."
Keane was singing off the same hymn sheet, after the pair shared some jocular banter about how Tardelli sold him when he was manager of Inter. Tardelli enjoyed the joke a little more than the player.
"There is a solidness about us now," said Keane, returning to the script. "We have shown over the last few years that we are a team now. Our confidence has grown. No matter what team we play, we feel we can beat anybody."
The manager's stomach may be ropey, but the team he has moulded is in good health.
Republic of Ireland v Argentina,
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