Robbie holds the key for Ireland
YEARS have passed and managers have changed, but Ireland arrive at the climax of another campaign in a familiar scenario. In short, they are relying on Robbie Keane.
There's been a lot of talk this week about this country's chequered play-off history, reflective pieces on days that have mostly ended in disappointment. A consistent trend, however, is that when Ireland reach this juncture, Keane tends to deliver.
The Tallaght man has delivered three of the six goals that Irish teams have scored in play-off matches, a contribution stretching back to his strike against Turkey in 1999.
He grabbed the decisive second against Iran in 2001 and spun into the right position to raise hopes in Paris two years ago.
The Dubliner's recent move to MLS may have suggested an acceptance that the end of his career is nigh, yet he is still the man that Giovanni Trapattoni will be looking to over the 180 minutes with Estonia.
His strike partner Jonathan Walters will provide the physicality and the hold-up play to unsettle an imposing Estonian rearguard. The Irish boss will be hoping that the fruit of the Stoke man's endeavours is the freedom for Keane to ghost into striking distance.
Remarkably, there were some Irish fans who weren't too disappointed when the 31-year-old sustained an injury against Andorra last month. The feeling was that Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Simon Cox and Walters would be well able to shoulder the responsibility. They have short memories.
Admittedly, Keane was below par in September's showdowns with Slovakia and Russia, looking more tired than he has at any time in the Irish jersey.
Nevertheless, it would be dangerous to underestimate the value of his experience for this kind of encounter. Doyle's first-leg suspension and Shane Long's injury troubles have reasserted his importance, but let's be clear -- Keane was always going to start once he reported for duty in one piece.
He has scored 18 times since Trapattoni's appointment and the manager indicated earlier this week that even if he was concerned that his skipper was below 100pc, it would always be worth keeping him on the pitch for an hour because of his ability to sniff out a chance.
It turns out that Keane, with the help of the state-of-the-art medical facilities in California, has arrived in better shape than the Irish camp were anticipating.
When he landed at 8.0 yesterday morning after flying home via Chicago, assistant manager Marco Tardelli granted Keane permission to skip the morning training session in Malahide to sleep off the journey.
However, he declined the offer. "He said that he preferred to come to training," Tardelli revealed.
Keane spoke about the emotional significance of making Euro 2012 at the weekend, and his desire to be involved is apparent to his employers in LA.
It's a difficult balancing act because Galaxy are desperate to deliver an MLS Cup. Last week, they effectively played a two-legged quarter-final and a knockout semi-final as their campaign reaches a climax.
After splashing out big money in August, they needed Keane on the pitch to justify the investment. Potentially, it was a risk, but if he missed out, then the new boy would doubtless have been subjected to criticism that he was saving the body for international duty.
The same questions were asked of David Beckham when he tried to juggle LA commitments with his England ambitions and the team floundered. Fortunately for all concerned, Keane appears to have come through a hectic seven days with flying colours.
Certainly, he clearly improved over the course of his three outings with Galaxy. He was lethargic in his comeback game, a turgid encounter with New York Red Bulls that lacked intensity. The tempo increased considerably in the second leg of the clash with Thierry Henry's employers, and Keane responded.
By Sunday, and the showdown with Real Salt Lake, the 31-year-old had found an extra gear. He lasted the duration and scored a fine goal on a counter-attack (or a 'transition' as they call it in the US) to wrap up victory in the second half. The only blot on the copybook was a horror miss in added-time, which he attributed to 'jelly legs' after his exertions.
That's a slight concern, perhaps, because there's no question that Estonia will provide a stiffer test than the generous MLS defences who tend to afford space.
His opponents in the A Le Coq Arena will be less welcoming, so Trapattoni may yet have to send for Cox at some stage in the second half, although Keane would probably have to be incapacitated before volunteering to come off.
"I watched the match and he looked sharp," said Tardelli. "It's good news."
The Italian World Cup winner acknowledged that Keane's presence could have a psychological impact on both his team-mates and the opponents. "I hope it's possible that Estonia get to know the other players during the match," he said. "But I think we need Robbie Keane.
"He is our captain and he knows that it's a very important match for the country. He understands the responsibility. It's important that he speaks to the other players as well."
Ultimately, though, Keane's captaincy will never be judged by the power of his words. His modus operandi is to lead by example and concentrate on what he does best; Trapattoni has urged his striker to do that rather than what he did in the Steve Staunton era, when the rookie captain was almost trying too hard and drifted away from where he is most effective.
Those who know Estonia have pointed out that Ireland's record goalscorer is the kind of operator that they struggle to contain.
Brian Kerr's assistant at the Faroe Islands, John McDonnell, said in these pages last week that the underdogs will cope if Ireland operate predictably in straight lines for the duration.
Instead, the key to unlocking the Baltic rearguard is clever movement, and a swiftness of thought to find the gaps. It's Keane in a nutshell.
His brief is to provide something different but, 13 years after his debut, the pressure remains the same.