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Monday 27 February 2017

Miguel Delaney: Friendly celebration has a new significance as Robbie Keane bids farewell

Miguel Delaney

Robbie Keane's last Ireland game will be emotional, while Martin O'Neill took the astute decision to introduce fresh faces in the Euro 2016 build-up. Photo: David Maher
Robbie Keane's last Ireland game will be emotional, while Martin O'Neill took the astute decision to introduce fresh faces in the Euro 2016 build-up. Photo: David Maher

For a fixture previously only notable because of its odd regularity on the Irish international calendar, Wednesday's meeting with Oman has now assumed a lot of significance. This is no longer a mere friendly, nor even just a chance for the home crowd to show appreciation for Euro 2016.

First and foremost, there is the grand matter of Robbie Keane's last match in an Irish shirt, affording the game a rare sense of occasion and emotion - as well as guaranteeing a sell-out.

Much of this match will be more interesting for what goes on around the game rather than during it, since they will be special events in themselves. The FAI will likely finalise plans for the evening's protocol tomorrow.

In keeping with that interest in what happens away from the action, there will be an expected public appearance by John Delaney, 11 days after a Brazilian judge issued a warrant to seize his passport in the ongoing investigation into alleged Olympic ticket touting.

Beyond all that, though, there is the fact that this is the first step in a new cycle for the Irish team.

Read More: Stephen Hunt: We didn't get on but I'd have Robbie in my team every time

Oman succeed Morocco in 1990 as guests invited to a rare post-tournament reception, allowing the hosts to have a bit of a party. Ireland's other qualifications were followed by competitive matches against Northern Ireland in 1988 and Latvia in 1994, and then friendlies away to Finland in 2002 and Serbia in 2012. Many of those involved first caps - with Denis Irwin making his debut in that 1-0 win over Morocco - but that is not the case this time. There are no new names in the squad, although that is because Martin O'Neill took the astute decision to introduce fresh faces like Callum O'Dowda in the Euro 2016 build-up.

That should mean they're already used to the set-up and the personality of the manager, so that this friendly is really just an opportunity to fine-tune things, to get everyone back up to speed.

It means a hugely awkward opening World Cup qualifier away to Serbia is not the first game back, and that the players have a necessarily soft build-up ahead of a hard match to blow off the cobwebs. The hope is that any Euro 2016 hangover or hesitation will have been banished by tomorrow week in Belgrade.

The team O'Neill picks will be telling in that regard. Keane apart, will he go for his first-choice XI so that they are properly prepped together for Serbia, or will he experiment a little to allow some improvisations for that game?

Of particular interest will be how he uses the alternative attacking options like Harry Arter, Eunan O'Kane and O'Dowda - especially with Euro 2016 break-out star Jeff Hendrick injured.

Read More: Farewell to a big lump of Irishness

Because, whatever happens, Oman are unlikely to be any more difficult opposition than they were in the 4-1 Irish win at Craven Cottage in September 2012, the 2-0 home victory at the Aviva Stadium two years later - or their makeshift side's 1-1 draw with Cork City on Tuesday. Former Real Madrid manager Juan Roman Lopez Caro's team have already been eliminated from the Asian federation's multi-stage World Cup qualification process, and one of the very few players who plays outside the country is the team-mate of Paul McShane and Stephen Quinn at Reading, Ali Al-Habsi.

The goalkeeper may yet spoil the party, though, if he denies the main man from scoring. Given how the last 18 years have gone, that seems unlikely, in what is now one last main event.

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