independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Perfect time for Lansdowne to roar again

Trapattoni puts huge onus on Sammon as Ireland bid to improve home form

Conor Sammon can’t wait to get stuck into the Austrian defence tonight

WHEN the topic of Ireland's ropey home form came up in discussion ahead of tonight's pivotal World Cup encounter with Austria, Giovanni Trapattoni turned his mind to Roy Keane.

His point was that Ireland had failed to register a notable victory on Dublin soil since the Keane era, a nod, perhaps, to the famous 2001 success over Holland in the old Lansdowne Road, although it wasn't directly brought up. The absence of a similarly inspirational figure is perhaps a reasonable excuse but as Trapattoni then moved on to defending home performances under his watch, his argument lost direction.

"You remember the first qualifying campaign?" he said, before listing performances that could easily be picked apart.

"Georgia," he said. "Great football." That was a 2-1 win that was helped considerably by a terrible refereeing decision.

"Montenegro." A drab 0-0 dead rubber at Croke Park.

"Bulgaria." An encounter which Ireland led within 40 seconds and still managed to draw.

He did not bring up the thrilling 2-2 with Italy, the only relevant counterpoint, while the reference to the play-off with France was hardly suitable given that the display in Paris was several notches above the Dublin leg.

Tellingly, he didn't mention any qualifying matches from the new Lansdowne Road era. Top seeds Russia and Germany have run riot in Ballsbridge, and Slovakia didn't find it very hard to escape with the point they required. Wins over Macedonia, Andorra and the luckless Armenia hardly mark out the renovated venue as a fortress and it simply cannot be put down to the inferior quality of player available to this regime.

logic

Conventional logic suggests that home advantage allows a team to raise their game and perform above their capabilities. Trapattoni can rightly be proud of his excellent away record, where his men have raised the bar, but it remains a failure of his tenure that he has failed to devise a coherent strategy to seize the initiative on Irish soil. In a cliche-ridden world, Dublin is often described as a tough place for other teams to go when the reality is quite different.

Tonight, it has to change. It might explain, to some degree, why Trapattoni has opted for an XI with a preference for power over finesse, even if the real genesis of the failing in Dublin 4 has been a lack of controlled possession rather than a shortage of aggression.

The loss of Robbie Keane to an unfortunate calf injury presented the 74-year-old with a dilemma that would have a significant impact on the Irish approach.

In that context, his preference for Conor Sammon is telling. He is given the nod ahead of Wes Hoolahan because Trapattoni believes the unheralded Derby striker is more effective at covering ground from left to right on the wide pitch and is also capable of holding the ball up.

In short, he can defend from the front, and provide an outlet for long balls. It is enough to check talk of evolution that accompanied some of the more optimistic responses to the encouraging signs from Stockholm.

"If you remember, three or four years ago, you asked me 'Why play Caleb Folan?'," said Trapattoni, when pressed on the Sammon decision.

"There are similarities. I think he can give support to Shane Long, he is quick, strong, can head the ball and showed us good quality against Poland."

Hoolahan, who came off the bench to score in that Polish fixture, will be called into action at some stage tonight, with Trapattoni stressing that he is planning to make three attack-minded switches in the second half if necessary, with Robbie Brady, Kevin Doyle and Simon Cox other options.

Stephen Kelly is on standby to play if there is any doubt about Marc Wilson's fitness as the manager does not to have to make an early change.

Ultimately, the first-half inspiration will have to come from two players with huge expectation resting on their shoulders – good friends James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman.

There's enough material in the relationship between McCarthy and Trapattoni for a slapstick comic book sketch, with the Irish boss adding to the plot yesterday by suggesting he would punch the Wigan man in the face if he continued to be so shy.

Coleman, who is McCarthy's room-mate, says the 22-year-old is louder in the room than he is out of it, and the Glaswegian was noticeably more vocal on the pitch at the Friends Arena.

A repeat display here would surely cement his place in the manager's affections.

Austria are a dangerous opponent, though, and possess the formidable weapon of David Alaba, the Bayern Munich left-back, whose energy and athleticism is used in the centre of the park for his country by Marcel Koller. The 20-year-old's enthusiasm has been a noticeable feature of their 4-0 and 6-0 Vienna drubbings of Kazakhstan and the Faroe Islands respectively; he was unavailable for their drab scoreless draw with the Kazakhs in Astana.

Their coach, Marcel Koller, can also call on the talents of enigmatic Werder Bremen winger Marko Arnautovic, a player more likely to punch his own manager in the face. He fell foul of Jose Mourinho during a brief stint at Inter Milan.

The Irish centre-half pairing of John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark have impressed on their last two outings, and their challenge tonight will be determined by Koller's choice between the experience of target man Marc Janko and in-form youngster Philipp Hosiner, who would win the public vote and has been compared to Long by Trapattoni.

He is familiar with Austria's plans to overhaul their youth system, which were taking shape in his final days at Red Bull Salzburg, and has noted the agility of the new generation.

However, he is also fully briefed on the hardened pros in the visitors' rearguard, with Jon Walters preferred to Brady as he is better equipped to deal with imposing Schalke left-back Christian Fuchs, who will wear the captain's armband.

In many respects, these protagonists are evenly matched, and Ireland have only a marginal edge on experience with the average age of the starting side coming in at 26.4 compared to Austria's 24.8 if they stick with the team which kicked off against the Faroes. With both camps feeling they have to win, much will depend on how the younger heads respond to that pressure.

It is the ideal time for Trapattoni's men to impose themselves on proceedings from the outset and allow the guests to feel the heat. Irish football might have a home, but we're still waiting for the house-warming.

Verdict: Ireland 2 Austria 1

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