It’s all about September endgame for Trapattoni
Croatian challenge presents last chance for Irish boss to settle some crucial issues
THIS time three weeks -- it will be different. The first day of term vibe which surrounds tonight's friendly with Croatia will be replaced by the intense pressure of a week that will have serious implications for Irish football.
So, while the purist should enjoy the visit of the eighth best side in the world to Dublin, particularly an opportunity to watch the majestic Luka Modric in action, Giovanni Trapattoni must concentrate on the endgame.
The double header with Slovakia and Russia in the first week of September will effectively determine Ireland's finishing position in Group B. In addition, the outcome of those two games should influence the FAI's stance on the Italian's new contract.
Trapattoni has cut a contented figure this week.
After four wins in the May/June period, and a 100pc communication success rate with his squad ahead of this gathering, everything is rosy in the garden.
Nevertheless, the 72-year-old has always stressed that the availability of key players is his biggest worry.
With lingering injury concerns in several departments, tonight's audition could prove significant with the table-topping clashes in mind. Trapattoni still has several issues to contend with.
1 KEVIN DOYLE'S INJURY
There's a sense of unease about the Wexford man's wellbeing. He remains troubled by the medial ligament injury sustained in the qualifier with Macedonia in March.
An attempted comeback before the end of the season with Wolves went wrong and, while he has been involved in pre-season, he arrived in Dublin short of 100pc.
Trapattoni is conscious that, in a general sense, these kind of problems are delicate.
If Doyle is pitched into club action before he is ready, then it could be ominous for his September prospects.
"It's a difficult situation," said Trapattoni. "He's in a bit of pain. I need to check that he is OK psychologically."
Shane Long gets the nod ahead of Simon Cox for tonight's encounter. Cox was favoured in Macedonia because of his work outside the box and it may be the case that Trapattoni feels the new recruit is more suited to relieving pressure in an away game. On home soil, Long is preferred.
2 MIDFIELD SHORTAGE
Some good news for Trapattoni yesterday, with Keith Andrews securing a loan move to Ipswich.
After a miserable year at Blackburn, the Dubliner came in to produce a strong display in Macedonia with Darron Gibson nursing a groin strain.
Andrews is on the sidelines this week, though, and the shortage of tried and trusted cover is noticeable.
Trapattoni retains suspicions about Gibson's ability to scrap in the big games, while he hasn't had the chance to try the talented James McCarthy in the centre, and only sparingly utilises Keith Fahey in that department.
Chelsea youngster Conor Clifford joins up with the squad today after playing for the U-21s last night, and he might even get a cap off the bench.
But the promising Dubliner is very much an option for the long haul.
Unless Gibson can make a strong statement this evening, the priority for the next three weeks will be Andrews coming through a hectic period at his temporary home.
3 CAN HE DROP sTEPHEN HUNT?
Stephen Hunt was excellent in Macedonia and inspired in the friendly win over Italy.
The Wolves winger has made a compelling case for regular inclusion in the starting XI.
Trapattoni stressed yesterday that Damien Duff is 'indispensible', so it's basically a straight fight between Hunt and Aiden McGeady with news of a torn ankle ligament suggesting that Seamus Coleman is up against it to recover.
Former Celtic winger McGeady has developed into an extremely important player for Ireland, but he has spent the last couple of months on the treatment table with an ankle problem.
The prognosis is that he will recover in time for the Slovakia and Russia encounters, but any minor setback would put his participation in doubt.
Trapattoni may well be mulling over sticking with the energetic Hunt anyway.
He has risen to the challenge in big games -- especially on foreign soil -- where his willingness to tuck inside and support the central midfielders is important. A repeat of his Italy display tonight will enhance his claims.
4 TIME TO REPLACE KEVIN KILBANE?
This old chestnut again. Kilbane did nothing wrong in Skopje, but the main reason he has retained his place for this campaign is the lack of a really established alternative.
Trapattoni was clear in saying that John O'Shea is guaranteed a return to the starting XI once he recovers from the hamstring problem that caused his precautionary absence from this week.
He was less committal about Kilbane.
Stephen Ward made a strong impression in the summer camp, and Kilbane was told to skip this exercise so management could have another look. Reference was also made to Marc Wilson and Greg Cunningham.
Ward has a good chance to build on recent promise. It would be a shock if Trapattoni cast Kilbane aside in September, but there was enough in his words to give the ex-Bohs man added incentive.
5 THE ROBBIE KEANE QUESTION
Considering that he responded from a torrid club campaign to break the goalscoring record and grab both goals in Macedonia, there is no point even floating the concept of Keane's place being in jeopardy if he doesn't get his transfer situation resolved. The 31-year-old will play and it's the right decision.
Nevertheless, after a rusty display against the Russian and Slovakian defences last October -- a step-up from the calibre of opponent he encountered in the summer -- it would help if he had a couple of Premier League games under his belt.
Another matter is, while Keane is confident he will find new employment, the Slovakian encounter comes just 48 hours after the close of the transfer window. Given his penchant for deadline day deals, an earlier resolution would be favourable in the context of the international preparations.
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