Veterans and core values the perfect mix for Trap
Published 06/06/2011 | 05:00
When Robbie Keane pounced for his personal landmark in the Philip II Stadium, we waited with bated breath to see what would happen next after he opened the scoring.
We wondered would Keane have a particular celebration stored away? More pointedly, we speculated about his team's chances of swerving their proverbial habit of slipping into a comatose submission after achieving an early breakthrough.
It is always thus with Ireland; any initial angst supplanted by subsequently soaring optimism before the inevitable, slow spiral into teeth-gnashing torture by the final moments.
Keane's celebration, ominously, was spectacularly bungled as Keith Andrews' clumsy push on his captain, a familiar theme for the erratic midfielder all evening, ensured the record-breaker's somersault resembled one of his son's tumbles in the front living-room.
We need not have wondered about Ireland's response, though. Macedonia made sure of that, the execrable defensive slip-up from Boban Grncarov allowing Keane to reach a 51st state of ecstasy.
"Macedonia loves you Irish guests," captioned the big screen beforehand; a greeting laced with irony, we had thought, particularly as the same display repeatedly reminded us of the previous two horror shows in this country.
The exorcism was clinical and professional. To the neutral, it was an appalling spectacle, sprinkled with some world-class moments from key players, but principally founded upon the values of hard work and honesty which may yet earn this unheralded squad a place at football's top table next summer.
IT TAKES TWO
Amid a swirl of often mind-numbing mediocrity, the majority of it clothed in red, the world-class interventions of Shay Given and Robbie Keane neatly framed the occasion's key moments.
The early, settling goal was divined from Keane's key sense of ambition, the second from the innate skill of a seasoned poacher; Given's save in the 13th minute from Goran Pandev was crucial in ensuring Ireland didn't immediately cede their early advantage.
His later saves were vital, too, but in the context of a two-goal advantage, less so.
"Robbie's the goalscorer of the team," says Aiden McGeady simply of the 13th European to score over 50 goals for his country.
Without him, would Ireland have scored twice? Impossible. His five goals in three games indicate how indispensable he is to the Irish cause, even if it appears to be entirely the opposite for so many English ones.
"He has just said in there if his legs can carry him for another year or two why not hit 60 or 70 goals?" revealed Simon Cox, aided and abetted in an encouraging competitive debut by his senior partner.
Trapattoni rates Keane as one of the best he has ever worked with; excess mileage may be hindering him, but the manager can see him aping the languid Francesco Totti in advanced years. There may still be another World Cup in him.
Like Keane, Given may not have an earthly where he will play his club football next season, but he too raged against season-long inactivity and injury to produce when it mattered.
"Some of the saves he pulled off were fantastic and just his sheer presence was so important," gushed an enthralled John O'Shea.
"Those two are absolute heroes for Ireland."
It wasn't just Given, Keane, Glenn Whelan and Darren O'Dea who received pain-killers to ensure they finished this game.
The whole squad seemed to be injected with a confidence serum -- as if galvanised by the annoying distractions from those who chose not to become part of this squad, as opposed to those who were.
"We've always had a good team spirit," insisted Keane.
"I said that it was important that we stuck together as a group and we've done that. It's worked out to be a great couple of weeks for us.
"I think it's important for the lads who are here to show that they should be here and that they have a right to be here.
"The next squad, they should be in.
"They could easily have been on holidays the last couple of weeks, but they chose to be here, so that's a decision the manager has to make now.
"But full credit. The most important thing was we stuck together during the last few weeks. The team spirit, I have to say, was strong."
Stephen Hunt echoed these thoughts, saying: "The last two weeks have probably brought us all closer together in a strange way."
The manager agrees too.
The next squad announcement will be fascinating because this particular group seem stronger than ever before.
"Our character and personality are stronger," confirmed Trapattoni.
The manager came into this encounter with a necessarily straitened selection policy, but he still managed to surprise many people with his starting XI -- to his credit, every single one of his hunches came up trumps.
Cox proved to be a worthy foil for the captain, despite an early surfeit of high ball being tossed aimlessly within a 20-foot radius of his position.
His slick combinations with Keane were a feature of much of Ireland's occasional deep attacking forays.
Stephen Kelly was predominantly selected to mark a player who had been ruled out injured, but Trapattoni's insistence that Kelly's other attributes would emerge were vindicated.
O'Dea's selection may also have been queried in certain quarters but, aside from the glaring error in ceding possession in the build-up to the Macedonian penalty, he was comfortable as the home side produced just two shots from outside the penalty area in the second-half.
"In life you need luck," mused Trapattoni.
Yet his raison d'etre is to apply his rigorous, unsophisticated game-plan to any given situation, with any type of players, once they invest faith in each other and the manager.
He now believes he has a core of players who can marshal that system -- "now they understand," reported Trapattoni, who believes he now has two players to adequately cover every position without diluting the team's overall quality.
In such a scenario, nothing will represent a gamble to Trapattoni. Which is just how he likes it.
Ireland will never be renowned as a side who will create a landslide of goal-scoring chances, which is why it is always crucial for them to snaffle as much as they can from their limited opportunities, particularly away from home.
They couldn't have asked for a better productivity ratio as they converted two from three in the opening half -- not to mention a goal that should not have been chalked off for offside against Cox.
In stark contrast, the Macedonians fluffed their best two opportunities; Pandev's one-on-one joust with Given and the unforgivable missed penalty from Ivan Trickovski.
Who knows whether they would have scored the penalty they should have been awarded rather than missing the one that they did; ultimately Ireland gained strength from their opportunism, while Macedonia were enervated by their lack of precision.
"Missing the penalty was a blow for them as it would have given them something to fight for in the second half," confirmed Keith Andrews. "We went in 2-0 at half-time and it was quite comfortable in the end."
Captain Keane confirmed the mood music. "Yeah, I think for them, they looked dead and buried then. In the second half they kept the ball quite well, but really without creating a lot of chances."
Ireland looked eerily in control of matters in that second-half thanks to their opening burst of accuracy.
THE 3D EFFECT
Whatever about the manner in which Giovanni Trapattoni's selection gambits paid off, thanks to Macedonian misfortune and Irish fortitude, the absences of key trio Richard Dunne, Kevin Doyle and Damien Duff would not be afforded such licence against either Slovakia or Russia.
Hunt is the perfectly annoying rash on opposing full-backs in away fixtures, but at home his end product flatters to deceive.
O'Shea is palpably unsuited to centre-half and on another day may have seen red after his two clumsy penalty area lunges. And Cox is surely not in possession of the wit and ceaseless industry provided by Doyle.
Doyle, Dunne and Duff must be present for the sterner, defining tests this autumn, as much as Trapattoni's admirable faith in their often one-dimensional understudies was positively rewarded on Saturday night against modest opposition.
Saturday underlined that Ireland are still reliant on their star players, back-boned by the traditional virtues of hard work. It is a mix that may yet accrue bountiful rewards.