Don't waste this chance - Keane
Robbie Keane has urged the Republic of Ireland not to pass up the opportunity to book their place in the extended Euro 2016 finals.
Keane and his team-mates secured a berth in the last edition of the tournament in 2012 via the play-offs, a similar route to the one they took to reach their previous major finals tournament, the 2002 World Cup.
The expansion of the draw from 16 to 24 teams in France means they have an even better chance of qualification, and the 34-year-old LA Galaxy frontman is determined not to miss out.
Keane said: "It's certainly a good opportunity for us. If you look in the past, the way we have qualified has always been through the play-offs, and of course we would like that to change and finish first.
"That second place is certainly up for grabs and we have to be going into this campaign fairly confident enough that we can qualify for the Euros.
"If we don't believe it, we won't do it. The players have been around for a few years now. If you look at people like (Aiden) McGeady and (Glenn) Whelan, who have been fantastic for us and shown a lot of experience, we need those kind of players and the rest of the team to stand up now.
"As a group of players, we are certainly aware now we have got a great chance of qualifying from this campaign. If we believe it, we have certainly got a chance to do that."
If Ireland are to hand Keane a ticket to the third major finals tournament of his international career, they will have to negotiate their way out of a difficult group including world champions Germany.
The World Cup winners are hot favourites to win it, while Martin O'Neill's men should battle it out with Scotland, Poland and Georgia for second place.
They launch their campaign against the Georgians in Tbilisi on Sunday evening in O'Neill's first competitive fixture, and he would happily settle for the same results as predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni got against the same opposition in similar circumstances, a 2-1 victory.
The 62-year-old admitted to being nervously excited as he approached a game for which the anticipation has become almost unbearable after a run of eight friendlies since his appointment in November last year.
O'Neil said: "It's a competitive game and it's the first time I have managed a competitive game at international level, but I could compare this very, very easily with great big club games that I played both as a player and as a manager.
"The feelings are exactly the same - excitement and nervous excitement as well, just looking forward to it - all the same sort of feelings I would have had going in to manage at club level, and certainly as a player."
O'Neill as less than forthcoming when asked about his team selection - whether or not 38-year-old keeper Shay Given starts after coming out of international retirement has been a major topic of debate in recent days - and he insisted his players do not even know yet if they have been selected.
He said: "It's my policy - it has been in all my managerial time. I don't announce the side too far beyond it.
"It's not as if this is a rugby union game where you announce the squad maybe a week beforehand. This has been my policy, I don't think it's been a problem announcing the team on the morning or the afternoon of the game.
"At club level, there's been many a time that I have waited until, let's say for a 3pm kick-off, to announce the team at 1.30pm or 1.45pm, so I haven't really changed policy in that aspect."
Having played a flat bat to a series of questions over his team, prompting an enquiry as to whether or not he was tense, O'Neill was asked about Ireland's last away clash with Georgia, which was played in Germany because of the political situation in the region at the time.
Indeed, a parallel was drawn with the current unrest in Ukraine and the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, prompting Football Association of Ireland communications director Peter Sherrard to step in.
However, O'Neill later said: "I'm not tense. I'm delighted, I am delighted to be here, absolutely delighted to be here, seriously.
"When the game was changed a few years ago, I'm not sure that it was the Republic of Ireland's doing.
"I can possibly - I hate to say this - exonerate myself because I wasn't there at the time, but we are delighted to be here today, absolutely delighted to be playing the game here."
O'Neill will be even more delighted if he leaves Tbilisi with the Republic's 100 per cent record against Georgia intact after their sixth meeting.
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