Now is time for Keane to deliver
Published 24/03/2011 | 05:00
There has been little for Robbie Keane to smile about in a season that has provided some of the lowest points of the Dubliner's lengthy career.
The statistics make for miserable reading. He arrived in Malahide on Monday with 587 minutes of action at club level this season under his belt. That's less than 90 minutes a month going back to the middle of August.
For a player who has consistently performed at the top level for a decade, it's a dramatic decline in fortunes.
No wonder the 30-year-old has turned up this week like a man in the mood to make up for lost time, and prove wrong those who cast him aside.
Around the Irish camp, he is always wanted. Indeed, if he hadn't missed out on the friendlies with Norway and Wales due to setbacks, then the likelihood is that he would have played more international minutes than club action this term.
Having initially suggested that Keane's lack of match sharpness could impede his involvement in this week's Euro 2012 qualifier with Macedonia, management are coming around to the opinion that the skipper is capable of playing a full part after overcoming the calf problem that soured his fresh start at West Ham in January.
When asked what had pleased him most about the training sessions to date, assistant manager Marco Tardelli was quick to reach a conclusion. "I think Robbie Keane," he said. "Because he's been out of action for many days after the injury.
"We've found him fit. There has been a smile on his face and he is in good form.
"For me, Robbie can last the whole match," continued Tardelli, offering a more confident prognosis than Trapattoni had 24 hours previously, when an hour on the park had been suggested.
"I saw the match against Stoke and he played 20 minutes, but now he has improved and he is ready for us."
Keane is used to pressure, of course. For the majority of his Irish career, he has shouldered the burden of responsibility in the goalscoring stakes. This weekend, he will be operating under a different kind of scrutiny, though.
The country's all-time record goalscorer may not have always endeared himself to some sections of the Irish support yet, for all of that, there's never really been a time where the detractors have offered a credible alternative.
Certainly, it could never have been suggested that including the Dubliner in a particular fixture represented a gamble. Not until now.
Keane maintains that when somebody comes along who can offer more, he will step aside. It's only lately that competition has emerged.
Shane Long and Leon Best have shone for Reading and Newcastle respectively since the turn of the year, while Jonathan Walters endeared himself to Trapattoni by making a positive impression in the Welsh encounter.
Walters is late in for this gathering due to an impending new arrival in his family, while Best has gone back to Newcastle for treatment on his ankle, with the 24-year-old unable to prove his fitness in training at Gannon Park.
Long is the real threat and has more than club exploits to boost his case. The Tipperary native made a notable impression from the bench against Russia last October and then, in the absence of Kevin Doyle, went on to out-perform his strike partner, Keane, in the 1-1 draw in Slovakia.
It's the latter encounter that the Irish captain needs to erase from the memory this weekend. The effects of stagnation at Spurs were there for all to see on that night in Zilina.
Much of the post-match discourse revolved around the missed penalty but, really, it would be harsh to overly dwell on that aberration.
The real issue in that game was that Keane reacted tardily to a couple of half-chances that he would usually have mopped up. In general play, the rustiness was apparent. Ireland can't afford to go into another game of significance with such a vital cog malfunctioning.
Yet you have to be sceptical about the extent to which Trapattoni and Tardelli were really considering dropping their captain to the sidelines, particularly with seasoned members of the team in other departments ruled out.
"We have many options now," continued Tardelli. "We have Walters, and Shane Long has already played in a very important match in Slovakia. So it's good that we have options for the future. But now, Robbie Keane is very important for the experience."
It's worth remembering that in Trapattoni's first campaign as manager, these were the kind of games where Keane really delivered.
He got the winning goals in both jousts with Cyprus, and brought Ireland back from a goal down to secure a 2-1 victory at home to Georgia, a game that threatened to be a real banana skin. Nobody can deny his natural goalscoring instinct. The overriding narrative of his move to West Ham thus far has been the frustration of getting struck down in his second game.
What is forgotten is that on his debut, he was in the right place to hit the target against Blackpool.
The worrying aspect of the information that emanated from Upton Park in the days after he went down with a calf complaint against West Brom was that medics feared that the issue had the potential to completely derail the rest of his campaign.
Keane promised Trapattoni that he was capable of recovering quicker than the initial prognosis, and was true to his word by reporting for full duty.
He was bouncing around at Malahide yesterday and, while some players took a rest in the unusually warm conditions after a training match, the captain was among a group who kept in action a little bit longer, engaging in some shooting practice.
The time is right to produce a big performance. Ireland have always been reliant on Robbie Keane, but there's a sense that the terms of engagement are changing.
He has set himself the challenge of proving that he is still needed. In that respect, Saturday offers a significant test.