Trap's facing striker riddle
For over five years, the battle for places in the Irish front line has been about as competitive as the Scottish Premier League, with the ‘Old Firm’ of Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle out in front and the rest nowhere..
It’s different now. Ireland will enter the first leg of next month’s play-off without Doyle and, more than likely, Keane. However, there is a diminished feeling of crisis about the situation.
The reason is the welcome arrival of depth to a barren area during this European Championship campaign.
Suddenly, Giovanni Trapattoni has a wealth of options at his disposal. He can take credit for the nurturing of Simon Cox, while the improvement of Shane Long and the emergence of Jonathan Walters means that the front-line issue will be the major talking point in the build-up to the encounter.
Indeed, with Trapattoni indicating that Stephen Ward will get the nod at left-back ahead of Kevin Kilbane for the play-off , barring injuries, it’s safe enough to assume that Given, O’Shea, St Ledger, Dunne, Ward, McGeady, Whelan, Andrews and Duff will start on November 11.
The major talking point will surround the identity of the other two names on the team-sheet. It’s far from a straightforward situation, as Daniel Mc Donnell explains
Who is available for the first leg?
Kevin Doyle is suspended, but will return for the decider. Robbie Keane is in a race against time to make the game and, considering the Irish skipper normally stresses the positive, his cynical prognosis is significant. Of course, much can happen at club level between now and then but, as it stands, Cox, Long, Walters and Andy Keogh will be in the squad. They could possibly be joined by Newcastle's Leon Best, who got a mention from Trapattoni yesterday.
Is there a pecking order?
Not really. Trapattoni isn't picking a Fantasy Football Team, so he will shun the temptation to pick the two best players on paper. Instead, he will study the opposition and, crucially, decide which pair are most suited to his system. Trapattoni stated yesterday that he would only partner Shane Long and Kevin Doyle in a game where the opposition didn't field a central midfield playmaker. Essentially, it means they would have to be facing a side who use a formation other than 4-2-3-1. Slim chance of that. Long is an alternative to Doyle rather than a possible strike partner.
So, Long will replace Doyle, right?
You would think so, yet it was curious that the Tipperary man didn't get a run-out on Tuesday. There's a theory that Long's withdrawal from the team to face Slovakia last month has lessened his standing because he quickly returned to club action. It would be bizarre if the 24-year-old was punished for that. Ireland's game plan is based on having a striker who is comfortable in the air and Long offers that service. The Walters angle is interesting, but he was sent on for Cox -- not Doyle.
Who will benefit if Robbie misses out?
Simon Cox will start if Keane loses the race against time. Although Cox and Keane did start alongside each other in Macedonia, the reality is that it will always be one or the other. Cox actually spent a large part of Tuesday night trying to anticipate flicks from Doyle, but, in an away game scenario, in particular, he can drop back and support the central midfielders. Neither Long nor Doyle will be asked to do that.
Where does Walters
The Stoke man (below) is an intriguing option because he seems to be the only striker with the versatility to fit both of the striking berths. With Cox/Keane vying for one position and Doyle/Long battling over the other, Walters is somewhere in between. Perhaps he's not as good in the air as the latter pair, but he can hold the ball up and has serious physical presence.
Yet he also has the positional sense and work rate to offer cover for the midfielders and can spin off the shoulder of the last defender. The all-rounder also has an eye for goal. The Stoke player's versatility could result in management viewing him as the ideal troubleshooter from the bench.
Will Kevin Doyle automatically return for the second leg?
Certainly, the fact that he will be fresh should work heavily in his favour, particularly as he offers such a high-energy service. Nevertheless, it has been a curious couple of months for the 28-year-old who was involved in the row between Mick McCarthy and Trapattoni over his fitness and then showed uncharacteristic ill-discipline on Tuesday night. An immense first-half effort could offer tiredness as an excuse; but mention of fatigue makes you wonder if the Wolves man is fully at his best after an interrupted pre-season. Trap dislikes tinkering too much in a narrow space of time, so he'll have to think hard if Long or Walters shine.
Is this the beginning of the end for Robbie?
The 31-year-old is lucky to have escaped serious injury over his career, and has always showed up for Ireland when possible. It was strange to kick off a meaningful match on Tuesday without him and that feeling would be multiplied 10 times over if he wasn't around for the play-offs. For Keane, the problem is that the gluteal muscle problem could rule him out of the rest of LA Galaxy's season. While the others continue to be tested over the winter, the Dubliner will be out of action until the spring. Life after Keane has provided ample cause for long-term worry and, whatever happens, he will be missed, but if Ireland do the business next month then it won't seem as scary.
Keane doesn't make it, so Long and Cox are chosen for the first game, with Walters figuring from the bench. If they win, there is no guarantee that Doyle is selected for the decider. Best might enter the equation, but requires further injuries and Ireland chasing the game to get a sniff. Should Keane prove his fitness, he starts both matches.