Sunday 22 April 2018

Captain Keane –talisman or Achilles heel?

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

BEFORE yesterday, there was already a school of thought which believed that loyalty to Robbie Keane was in danger of becoming the Achilles heel of Giovanni Trapattoni's brave new world.

When the cameras descended on Malahide to monitor Ireland's continued preparations ahead of tomorrow's Lansdowne Road battle with Germany, there was a new strand to discussion, prompted by Keane's actual Achilles.

It has emerged that the Ireland captain has been troubled by a problem in that department for a while. A kick from Paul McShane on Tuesday brought the worst of the pain back.

And that's why Keane cut a solitary figure in Gannon Park. Standing on the sideline, wearing a warm jacket over his training gear to fend off the cold, the Irish skipper watched Trapattoni oversee proceedings.

He would have viewed a probable team for tomorrow night with Shane Long in his place, functioning as the central striker in the 4-3-3/4-5-1 line-up that the Italian has finally embraced with a view to stopping the Germans.

Fitness

There are a large number of Irish followers who would prefer if the in-form West Brom attacker retained that berth for the game itself, regardless of how Keane feels today after he goes through an early fitness test.

If Trapattoni sticks with his original instinct -- and let's be honest, unless Keane rules himself out it's impossible to see the 73-year-old doing otherwise -- then the selection of the LA Galaxy striker becomes a bigger risk than it already was in the first place.

This isn't senseless Keane-bashing. History will record him as Ireland's greatest goalscorer and once he wins five more caps to overtake Shay Given, the Tallaght man will become our most capped international.

It is an honour that he is likely to hold for a long time, considering there is no teenager in danger of racking up caps as Keane did when he cartwheeled onto the scene way back in 1998.

However, respected figures within football have already foreseen the dilemma that Trapattoni faces with regard to his captain.

In August, former assistant manager Liam Brady, who remains a firm supporter of Trap, as TV viewers well know, admitted that he was puzzled at the reluctance to switch to a formation based around three central midfielders. When asked where Keane stood in that eventuality, Brady acknowledged that it presented difficulty.

"If you're going to go with that formation, it would probably mean Robbie wouldn't be in it," he said.

The rationale is that an isolated central striker needs to be able to hold the ball up and bring the others into play.

It is a position which suits a player with the engine and the physicality to knock the opposition out of their stride, thus creating space for the wide attackers to benefit from the donkey work.

None of these attributes would rank highly in a list of Keane's skills. Throughout his career, the master poacher has thrived when latching onto the efforts of brawnier strike partners. He is Ireland's best finisher -- not the guy you want running himself into the ground.

At Euro 2012, Trapattoni tinkered with his rigid 4-4-2 for the defeat to Spain by bringing in Simon Cox as a second striker and asking him to play closer to midfield.

It succeeded in removing Keane from proceedings completely, with an Irish defence under immense pressure punting hopeful balls in his direction. He didn't stand a chance.

Addressing that lesson earlier this week, Trapattoni conceded that the experiment failed, yet stressed that the onus was on the other players to raise the energy levels and make sure that their 'biggest personality' avoids isolation.

Both Marco Tardelli and Keith Fahey have referenced training-ground work aimed at the blocks of players staying close together as a unit, with the intention of building counter-attacks from deep.

It certainly would represent a radical break from the norm for this Ireland side if they pursued that method, but, effectively, they have no other option.

If Keane, Cox and Aiden McGeady are the foremost attackers, they are hardly going to get much joy from the long-ball style that made the win in Kazakhstan such an ugly spectacle.

With Kevin Doyle injured, and Jon Walters on the bench, there is no obvious target man.

Nevertheless, management have spoken of the need to begin the game at a high tempo, pressing the Germans high up the park in an attempt to force Joachim Loew's side into mistakes.

Given the speed and accuracy at which the accomplished visitors are capable of moving the ball, it's a mission that will ask a lot of the Irish fitness levels.

This is where the prospect of an undercooked Keane starting the game becomes a concern. When pressed yesterday, he couldn't say for certain that he will be fine, a rare lack of confidence from a character who is generally bullish about his own health.

A lot can change overnight, of course, but it must present Trapattoni with food for thought.

With Shay Given and Damien Duff both retired and Richard Dunne injured, he feels that Keane's experience is invaluable.

The logic is understandable, yet it does not sway the sense that Long is far more equipped for the task at hand.

Tipperary's finest has tidied up some of the rough edges in his game and his combination of pace and power is capable of unsettling a relatively makeshift German rearguard.

Trapattoni wants to keep Long in reserve, explaining that his explosive ability could take the heavyweights by surprise in the second half.

That is predicated on Ireland still being in the game at that juncture -- a scenario which depends on Plan A being executed to precision right from the kick-off.

With Keane at full pace, that will be a struggle. At half pace, it's even harder to be optimistic.

Irish Independent

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