GIOVANNI TRAPATTONI always wonders why we persist with questions about players who don't have a part to play in his team. He often boils with irritation when another James McCarthy query pops up.
Last night's game against Slovakia should provide him with an ample explanation. Put simply, very few now believe his system is capable of securing that rare win against “the famous” team which normally marks a successful qualifying campaign for the Republic of Ireland. A few years ago, names like Andy Reid and Stephen Ireland were batted around by Trapattoni with as much subtly as a Moore Street hawker at Christmas time.
He liked to play games with those names and laced his comments with ridicule while coldly cutting creativity out of the Ireland team with a tactical scalpel. Trapattoni successfully steered Reid into a cul-de-sac while Ireland talked himself out of an international career and, over time, they faded to grey.
He began the same process with McCarthy 18 months ago and, in a series of intemperate and petty outbursts, painted a picture of a young player with no loyalty, no commitment and no manners. There has been virtually no communication between manager and player in those 18 months, other than megaphone headlines. Prior to all of this, McCarthy was seen as a model professional who toughed it out through five years of dog's abuse in Scotland after he declared for Ireland and is gifted to such an extent that Roberto Martinez has tried to build a team around him. Yet the international manager didn't make McCarthy's absorption into the senior squad a priority. In fact, all the evidence points to exactly the opposite. Nobody doubts that Trapattoni has done a fantastic job with Ireland defensively and the old failing of the late and disastrous concession of goals is firmly in the past.
But he has failed to marry a miserly defence with attacking talent which has enough quality to take on any opposition, and the breakdown is without question in midfield. Once again, Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan were over-run. They have been fixed so firmly in a defensive mindset that they have forgotten what to do with the ball when Ireland have a spell in possession. That didn't happen very often at the Aviva last night. Slovakia may be Russia-lite, but had they committed themselves to looking for the win from the start and pushed a few men further forward, Ireland would have been in real trouble. That is why we asked questions about Reid and continue to ask them about McCarthy, the player who could bridge the gap and turn Ireland into a more balanced and more dangerous team.
McCarthy could, with a run in the team and the support of his manager, be the man to fill midfield with something more than honest endeavour, but not in the current circumstances; not when he is barely tolerated by Trapattoni. He played a captain's role in the U21 win over Hungary in Sligo on Thursday night and it would have been asking a lot of him to come on and try to turn a senior Euro 2012 qualifier. But he wasn't even named on the bench. Maybe McCarthy had a strong 20 minutes in his legs and might have supplied the type of guile and midfield craft which was so painfully absent from Ireland's play. We'll never know. He might make the bench for Moscow but the idea that Trapattoni would put his faith in a young man he seems to trust not at all is fanciful in the extreme.
Nothing will change for Russia other than personnel. The system cannot be tinkered with and only the faces will change. This latest scoreless draw was the sixth consecutive clean sheet and we have Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger and Stephen Ward to thank for that. John O'Shea is clearly struggling for match fitness and may still be feeling a twinge or two from his dodgy hamstring but he didn't play to the standard we expect from him. That said, his future fitness is absolutely crucial for Moscow given the fact that St Ledger's soft yellow card has ruled him out of Tuesday's game. Against Slovakia, his passing was sloppy and his concentration patchy. He gave the ball away far too often but he wasn't the only sinner in that area.
Andrews was probably the worst offender, closely followed by Aiden McGeady, who looked a yard adrift of the pace of the game until he improved in the second-half and finished strongly. Slovakia enjoyed a remarkable amount of possession but couldn't convert it into something meaningful and, inevitably, the game ended with Ireland chasing an undeserved winner. The best chance fell to Robbie Keane and the fact that he managed to miss O'Shea's cross from the right completely with his head and connected instead with his shoulder just about summed up the night. There were other chances in an error-ridden game but none from either side to set hearts thumping. The booing at the end was mildly ridiculous.
Sure, the win over Slovakia was needed and Group B now looks very treacherous indeed, but it's not quite the time to reach for the pocket calculators yet. On the plus side, Slovakia didn't score and, under UEFA's arcane tournament rules, that means Ireland would win the head-to-head if the sides are tied at the end of the group. But two points were conceded to Russia who are now racing favourites and could probably get away with a draw in Moscow on Tuesday night and still win the group pulling up.