World reality bites
THERE were two international teams going through their paces at Arsenal's salubrious Bell Lane complex yesterday, one preparing for a World Cup, the other trying to forget the chain of events which has prevented them from sharing in that excitement.
The presence of Fabio Capello's England stars in such close proximity has consigned Ireland's players towards the direction of the academy pitches, with the TV crews filming Giovanni Trapattoni's training session ahead of tonight's friendly with Brazil warned that if they used their perch to search for a glimpse of John Terry & Co, immediate ejection would be the punishment. In other words, know your place.
Sure, in the aftermath of Thierry Henry's handball, the Irish team were box office but now, in the general scheme of things, they are a sideshow, waiting for Jim Bowen to emerge to present a 'Bendy Bully' while football royalty strides towards the speedboat.
There is no South African odyssey to look forward to and, by extension, no real sense of anticipation about a game that, for Ireland, is preparation for competitive fixtures that haven't even been organised yet. Even if the opposition are Brazil. A third clash in six years has reduced the novelty and, if anything, the Emirates Stadium dalliance with a side tipped for success this summer merely serves to intensify the pain of being absent.
Predictably, Trapattoni was asked about Capello's troubled dressing-room in the preliminaries and, while there was little discussion of the merits of Kaka, Robinho and the rest, he will doubtless be asked about their chances of World Cup success in the aftermath. And then the show will go on, with Ireland left behind. Reality bites hard.
Sometimes, you wonder if Trapattoni and his staff would prefer to wake up in August when it's all over, and the start of the Euro 2012 qualifiers is imminent.
The manager has already made it clear that experimentation will be minimal enough between now and then, save for inviting a few peripherals to a May training camp -- if the FAI can afford the expense.
Nevertheless, it would be churlish to ignore that a key feature of the 70-year-old's reign has been an ability to take something from a game which may appear meaningless to others. Liam Lawrence, Leon Best and Sean St Ledger can testify to that.
The Italian admitted yesterday that his original plan was to field his strongest XI for this exhibition, effectively the selection which lined out on that dramatic night in the Stade de France.
However, John O'Shea's long-term woe, in addition to the knock picked up by Richard Dunne in Aston Villa's Carling Cup final disappointment on Sunday, has removed two leading members. Captain Robbie Keane also looked set to miss the game after aggravating a knee injury in Celtic's Old Firm defeat on Sunday, although it now appears that he will be fit to play.
The identity of the replacements emphasises Ireland's lack of strength in depth when it comes to key areas, with Stephen Kelly and Paul McShane drafted in at right-back and centre-half respectively to join Sean St Ledger and Kevin Kilbane in a back-four that hardly screams fortitude. As ever, they will be protected by Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.
"We need to be compact", repeated Trapattoni, while Lawrence and Damien Duff will provide wide support for front pair Kevin Doyle and Keane.
Given the makeshift nature of his rearguard, this is an evening where the old cliché about attack becoming the best form of defence might well be relevant. Trapattoni recoiled at the suggestion that his team will spend the majority of the 90 minutes chasing.
"We can also play football," he smiled. "Against France, we played football. We didn't just chase. The same with Italy. When I reviewed those games, I liked it. I am proud of this team because they now play football. There are creative players. Yes, they must be compact. But we play well, and now they play with confidence."
Certainly, there is no verbal evidence that belief in the ranks has evaporated in the aftermath of the Hand of Gaul. Whelan, for one, has grown during his two years in the international side and feels that an attitude shift in expectations has occurred.
"I think nobody really gave us a chance of winning our qualifying group the last time around, but this time around we'll maybe be one of the favourites to come out of the group," he said of the Euro 2012 draw which pitted Ireland against top seeds Russia and Slovakia in addition to Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra.
"On paper, I think everyone would say it's a little bit easier."
Trapattoni has already gone on record to stress that his greatest worry is the effect that the absence of a few star names can have, so the real interesting aspect of tonight's match will be an indication if those in reserve are capable of assuming reliable status.
James McCarthy is the name on everybody's lips, and Il Capo hinted that the teenager will be involved in the latter stages if he proves that a troublesome ankle problem has been shaken off.
The Wigan starlet offers management an opportunity to change their system, with Trap keen to find out if Scottish-born McCarthy has the ability to function as a roving old-fashioned No 10 operating behind a lone striker. "The ankle is a bit swollen, but I think he is well," said Trapattoni after watching the promising youngster take some part in training. "He really wishes to play and if we have the possibility, I think he can play a few minutes.
"I have seen it before: when there is great potential there is expectation. All the reporters and the fans have that expectation. James is clever, he plays good football and he is creative and now you have to wait to see how he develops, how the personality develops.
"There are only some players, like Pele, like Maradona, like Cruyff, that can be stars when they are 19. The others grow slowly, so we must be patient."
At least in terms of readying the star-in-waiting for matches of genuine substance, the Irish camp have time on their side if this evening comes a little too soon. May's uninspiring jousts with Paraguay and Algeria offer a perfect window.
They would have preferred something else to look forward to in the summer, but that refrain is increasingly becoming a parochial issue. The excitement generated by a new face is the only way to forget.
Republic of Ireland v Brazil,
Live, RTE2, 8.05