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Sunday 21 January 2018

Clinical Keane's long-term future lies as an impact sub

Ireland skipper is one of the all-time greats but he offers little outside penalty box, writes Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

It's impossible to coach what he instinctively does. His movement, timing, intelligence and speed in the penalty area set him apart from every other player produced in Ireland. He is now among the great strikers of international football, but the puzzling question remains: should Robbie Keane be in the Ireland team?

Richard Dunne was asked last week and he was sure of Keane's place in history and in the team, before wondering why he divides opinion. "That's what football is about I suppose. The simple thing is that you look at his record, and regardless of anything else he's been in the right place at the right time to score all of those goals," said Dunne.

He's right, of course. The simple thing would be to limit analysis of Keane to his phenomenal scoring record and his place among the all-time greats seems richly deserved. But assess his contribution beyond that, and there are times when his exclusion from the Ireland team is worth considering. Both points are equally valid but poles apart.

His enthusiasm to play every game has never waned, helped by remarkable good fortune in avoiding serious injury. Scoring a hat-trick on the night he broke his country's all-time appearance record seemed fitting, but his general play was in line with what we are used to seeing from him too.

It is a scoring record that is unlikely to ever be beaten, but his overall contribution to Ireland performances does not extend much beyond what he does inside the penalty area. If you're looking for an aerial threat, a physical presence, hold-up play or creativity, you would need to go elsewhere. Other strikers available to Giovanni Trapattoni can offer all of those, but none have Keane's instincts in front of goal.

He provides clinical finishes when faced with opportunities close to goal. Maybe that should be enough, but examine his all-round game and you won't find much else. This will not change with advancing age, but his status within the squad surely will.

Keane said last week he intends to prolong his international career for another five years. He has every chance of achieving this if he continues to avoid serious injury, but it will depend more on how he reacts when he has to fight for his place in the side.

From the moment he arrived in the Ireland set-up he has been guaranteed to start each game, but that cannot continue for much longer. That might sound an odd thing to suggest at the end of a week in which he scored five goals in a game and a half, but he will soon experience what every other striker of his type eventually does.

As he was used last weekend against Georgia, there will be games when his impact will be greatest as a second-half substitute. He has no experience of being used sparingly for his country, and his adjustment to that role will determine by how much he extends his appearance record. His commitment to playing for Ireland can never be questioned, but flying in from America to sit

on the bench may be a lot more difficult than he imagines. He may not want to think it will ever happen, but it can only be avoided by early retirement. From his comments last week, he's not contemplating that either.

As long as he continues to score he will continue to play. That was his message last week and maybe that's what we should all accept when it comes to Trapattoni's team selections. As limited as Keane can be in general play, he is too lethal to consider leaving out. Wondering how Ireland would fare with one up front or five in midfield is pointless while Trapattoni is in charge or Keane is in the team. Trapattoni said he was the best Irish player he has seen. He means it and he won't be letting Robbie Keane go in a hurry.

rsadlier@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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