Our No.1 problem: Anxiety in the Ireland camp that Given may not be fit
FORGET all the phoney baloney about players being tired. Forget all the manager's gobbledygook -- right now, Ireland's No 1 problem is, quite simply, Ireland's No 1.
The Group C opener against Croatia does not represent merely any given Sunday for Ireland's greatest goalkeeper. For Shay Given, it will be the most important Sunday in his professional life for a decade.
But, as he walked slowly around the beautiful resort town of Sopot yesterday afternoon, the foreboding grey clouds above eloquently reflected the collective gathering gloom among Irish supporters. The 'Pray for Shay' campaign grows ever stronger with every passing hour.
Denied the opportunity to re-acquaint himself with major tournament fare since the World Cup in 2002, time is ticking down on Given's chances of taking his place in Ireland's starting line-up in Poznan.
And, even if he does, the Irish management have already expressed fears that it could be his only involvement in the campaign -- should his recent injury travails continue to mount up.
Calf injuries -- two of them, if one believes fresh reports this week --and blisters on both his big toes are the problems.
And, more seriously, a knee injury that was so troublesome that Ireland's most-capped player felt he could not afford to unilaterally accept the FAI's initial medical assessment.
It all adds up to a giant headache for Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni and a tortuously anguished build-up for the player himself, who may have thought that he had put his woes behind him after battling back from the initial knee injury sustained 18 days ago.
"Shay Given is fit," assistant manager Marco Tardelli bullishly declared yesterday.
"He decides if he wants to rest or not because he knows his body. He knows his mind and I am sure he will be fit, 100pc. Against Hungary, he showed he was fit. Today, he did different training, but ah... there are no worries."
Will he play all three games?
"I don't know. I can't foresee... Now, we play against Croatia. After Croatia, then we understand whether he's fit or not for the other games."
Clearly, there is an acknowledgement among the Irish management that Given may not be able to complete the Group C campaign unscathed.
Trapattoni's problem is that he knows only too well that without him, Ireland may scarcely be capable of emerging from the opening match unscathed. Such is his importance to this Irish team. And such is the significance of the gamble that may be placed in the event that Given is not 100pc fit.
Bubbling underneath the surface, there are also suspicions that the public are not always receiving full disclosure about the nature of Given's injury -- and specifically his preparedness for Sunday's kick-off.
Privately, the Donegal man was adamant that he wanted to play the full 90 minutes of last Monday's friendly against Hungary -- a couple of grimaces as he fulfilled the manager's instructions to punt long balls upfield hinted at some distress.
But a hat-trick of fine saves, including one astonishing reaction stop from a deflected shot, superfluously reminded Irish supporters of his inordinate value to an Irish team whose limited game plan almost masochistically invites defensive pressure.
At the half-time break, though, there was a hastily convened congregation of the goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly and his second and third-choice keepers, Keiren Westwood and David Forde.
Westwood had been instructed the day before that he would play the second 45 minutes -- his tardiness in getting ready smacked of surprise that he was being brought on at all.
Given was clearly unhappy after the match and barely acknowledged visiting media colleagues from his erstwhile Sunderland and Newcastle United stomping grounds as he departed the stadium.
Kelly later confirmed that this, indeed, had been the plan all along, but, just as some speculated suspiciously upon his reasoning when choosing to see another knee specialist in England, despite already being assessed by the FAI, something doesn't smell right.
Kelly's assertion that Given, now 36, could have played this week if put to the pin of his collar, seems faintly ludicrous. However, the player himself expressed pretty similar sentiments after missing the Bosnia friendly last month.
Despite the confidence exuding from the management, there clearly remains an anxiety among the camp that he may not be fit.
"He has to do a lot now to get on the pitch," says Keith Andrews. "If I was a betting man I would say he would be fine. He's vital for us. It's just the calmness he gives everyone and his experience of playing at the highest level over so many years. He's a big player for us."
While many of us remain envious of how one of the squad's most popular players manages to cling on to his youthful good looks, his body is proving less reluctant to defy the ravages of time. It is now 16 years since his debut against Russia; 122 caps later, he is more susceptible to niggling injury than at any time before in his career.
"He's 44 now and is cracking on," joked Andrews, inviting comparisons to another Irish football legend whose inability to train rarely impeded his ability to perform at a world-class level in a major tournament.
"Yeah," Andrews grins. "He's the Paul McGrath now."
Ireland would surely accept such a compromise at this stage of both his career and at this late stage in the preparation for these championships -- the risks remain fraught though.
Given's desire to play or train fully must, as the management have demonstrated, be reined in as much as possible. In turn, they must try to appreciate Given's bona fides as well.
After emerging from so many difficult club situations since his last appearance at a major tournament, from the shambles at Newcastle United to his exile under Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, Given is desperate to shine on the big stage.
Always Premier League class, the refusal of any of England's leading Champions League sides to secure his signature has remained a sore point in his private reflections.
Euro 2012 is his chance, perhaps the final one, to perform on a truly world-class stage.
To be denied by the recklessness of either Given or Trapattoni would compound the heartache. in their haste to seize the moment, nobody in the Ireland camp, particularly Given himself, can afford to ignore the bigger picture.
That will require an absolute trust between player and manager, a bond of faith that we can only hope remains as strong as ever.