Devising a perfect game plan
Careful preparation can make or break 2012 bid, writes Daniel McDonnell
WHILE Sunday's Euro 2012 draw has provided some history and geography lessons for Irish fans, it has also posed some difficult questions for Giovanni Trapattoni and his employers in the FAI.
Now that he knows the opponents who stand in the way of qualification for the finals in Poland and the Ukraine, the 70-year-old must consider what personnel he decides to use for the campaign and how quickly he can afford to blood new talent.
Meanwhile, the FAI must figure out how to make the best of a bad situation with respect to the commercial side of a group which presents travel headaches and lacks pulling power. In addition, they must also negotiate for the fixtures that offer the best chance of qualification, which is the ultimate end-game.
Both Trapattoni and the FAI have a lot to consider over the next couple of weeks ahead of the meeting to draw up the calendar which will either take place in Moscow or Bratislava. The Slovakian FA want to organise the gathering of all nations in Bratislava, and has written to all the other competing nations making that point after the Russians stated an intention to pull rank and host the summit.
1: PLAN THE SUMMER CORRECTLY
There may be no experimentation for the March 2 friendly for Brazil, but Trapattoni must get the thinking cap on in terms of deciding what players he will invite to a proposed end-of-season training camp.
The names of James McCarthy, Greg Cunningham and Seamus Coleman have been mentioned in dispatches although Trap refused to get bogged down in discussing the ability of the individuals in question after the draw in Warsaw.
Nevertheless, it will be important that his scouts around the UK do their work properly and recommend that the right names are in the mix from the outset of the campaign. The last training camp, in Portugal, convinced Trapattoni to make Glenn Whelan a prominent member of his squad and shaped his formation and other personnel matters.
However, the likes of Sean St Ledger and Liam Lawrence, who were first choice by the end of the campaign, failed to make the initial cut. Trapattoni took an instant shine to that pair when he set eyes on them; surely, he should have been alerted to their presence and brought them to the first gathering.
2: SORT OUT THE LEFT-BACK SITUATION
It was speculated over the weekend that Kevin Kilbane's days as an Irish left-back could be numbered, despite his decision to stick around rather than retiring from international football -- an option that was considered.
The veteran Hull man tried his best in an unfamiliar role during the World Cup campaign and mistakes unfortunately followed. The emergence of Stephen Ward at Wolves and, with a view to the longer term, Cunningham at Manchester City, does offer some hope to the Irish management. But are the alternatives ready for competitive action yet? Trapattoni needs to give the possible options the best possible chance before September and that means using Kilbane sparingly in the friendly games between now and then.
3: IDENTIFY THE RIGHT OPPONENTS
Trapattoni's input must be central to the selection of friendly opponents for May, with the gaffer stressing his desire for two matches after a training camp -- the FAI are aware of his thoughts, and need to weigh up the options.
Trap started his tenure with friendlies against Serbia and Colombia in the summer before an August meeting with Norway ahead of the serious stuff and stressed that the choice of European sides was important with respect to preparation for the tests ahead.
The 2010 August date is already set in stone, with Argentina visiting the new AVIVA Stadium. Therefore, a serious factor in the choice of at least one of the May opponents should be identifying a nation that will offer some form of preparation for the challenge presented by Slovakia and Russia.
4: CLARITY ON POTENTIAL RECRUITS
Publicly at least, Trapattoni seems less desperate to capitalise on the change in FIFA legislation which has opened up the door for the likes of Jamie O'Hara, Mark Noble, Kyle Naughton and others to switch their international allegiance because they haven't earned a senior cap for England.
The debate won't go away but if Trapattoni wants to introduce those players then now -- with a gap ahead of the next competitive game -- is the perfect time to ease them in. It will be easier for the existing squad members to accept them if they commit at the start of a journey rather than hopping on halfway through if results are going well
5: HAVE A LONGER CHAT WITH ROBERTO MANCINI
Sorry to bring it up. Stephen Ireland has probably burned his bridges with Trapattoni following his ludicrous comments in the build-up to the France match, yet the change of manager at Eastlands does add an interesting element to the affair. Mark Hughes was more than happy to facilitate Ireland's exile. Trapattoni says he has spoken to Mancini already about the situation, and a friendly face in the City dressing-room might prompt a resolution. Then again, Richard Dunne and Shay Given had little joy.
1: AIM FOR SLOVAKIA IN SEPTEMBER
When Ireland finished the World Cup in Japan and Korea on a relative high compared to the build-up, they entered the Euro 2004 campaign in positive form, with talk of winning their qualifying group. They went to Moscow in the first game and lost 4-2 and followed it up with the 2-1 loss to Switzerland that spelled the end for Mick McCarthy.
The hangover from a major tournament can take its toll; indeed, Ireland have capitalised in the past from catching teams fresh in September. Slovakia have done remarkably well to make this summer's World Cup and it promises to be an emotional experience for all involved.
Therefore, Ireland should travel to the fixtures meeting armed with the intention of taking on the Slovaks in September -- although you'd imagine that top seeds Russia, who also miss South Africa and generally have the first call, may be thinking in similar terms.
2: AVOID MOSCOW IN OCTOBER
The Russian capital is never going to be too appealing a venue to visit at the best of times, but if Ireland do have genuine claims for automatic qualification then they will probably need to accrue a positive result from their journey there. Timing, therefore, is everything. Cold temperatures and a plastic pitch are not a good combination. Even if there's no easy time to go there.
3: DON'T GET BURNED IN MACEDONIA
Avoiding Macedonia in September is almost as important as steering clear of Moscow close to winter. George Burley's reign as Scotland manager got off to a disastrous start when the Tartan Army travelled to Skopje on a sweltering afternoon in September. Ireland can't fall for that trick; only a late evening kick-off would suffice in that period of the year. Aiming for a trip to that part of the world in either October or during the spring international window would make more sense.
4: GET THE AVIVA ADVENTURE OFF TO a WINNING START
While John Delaney was at pains to stress on Sunday that there won't be any general admission tickets on sale for the group games, you can be sure that plenty of block bookers won't be too bothered if he skips the home games with Armenia and Andorra -- never mind the potential 10-year ticket buyer who will be paying a couple of grand a year for the privilege of getting every qualifier. Empty seats and a flat atmosphere would be an awful downer.
Ireland desperately need good vibes after the reopening and while marquee fixtures would be preferred, they really aren't available in this group.
There will, however, be a novelty value about the first competitive matches at the new stadium so kicking off the home matches against the smaller nations makes a degree of sense. It gives a better chance of a sell-out and a bit of winning momentum could restore the feeling that Lansdowne is a fortress -- something that could never be said of Croke Park during Ireland's struggles there.
5: BALANCE THE AWAY GAMES CORRECTLY
Ireland's double-header trip to take on Georgia and Albania in 2003 may have been unattractive for supporters, but it was necessary for the team in terms of logistics. Minimising the amount of long-haul trips will keep everyone happy so expect a similar trip at some stage in this campaign.
Pairing up Russia and Armenia would be one option, or else the Macedonia and Slovakia combo. Considering that qualifying games will likely take place on Saturdays and Tuesdays after changes to the international calendar -- with Friday games also possible -- then travel time must be factored into every permutation.
All teams will be in search of maximum preparation time for the bigger matches, so the Irish negotiating party need to be able to fight their corner. It will be much easier now that they have flexibility in terms of their home matches. The World Cup fixtures meeting in Sofia was complicated by the limited availability of Croke Park, with an irate Bulgarian official observing: "You Irish are the problem. No stadium. No weather." It should be a little easier to find middle ground now.