If Westwood is No 1 for Ireland, then he'll need to be No 1 for Sunderland, says John O'Shea
MEANINGLESS friendly? This evening's encounter in Belgrade may not have captured the attention of the Irish public but, for Keiren Westwood, Ireland's new No 1, it is an extremely relevant exercise.
As it stands, it could be his last proper outing before September's opening World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan.
Due to the unusual timing of Shay Given's departure, the elevation of the Manchester-born netminder has taken second billing.
Tonight, he will be centre stage against a Serbian outfit that possess the ability to cause problems.
Both Given and his Sunderland colleague John O'Shea lavished praise upon the 27-year-old yesterday. But it was qualified by the observation that if he remains in the background at the Stadium of Light, then it could pose problems.
"He's a top 'keeper and he's proved that in the games he's played," said Given. "But as we all know, if you're not playing regularly at club level and you come over for big World Cup qualifiers from maybe playing a reserve game... well, I've been in that situation before when I was at Man City for a year and I didn't play. You're not coming into internationals as sharp as you should be."
O'Shea had to speak more diplomatically, considering his high regard for Martin O'Neill's preferred choice, Belgian international Simon Mignolet.
"Keiren came back into pre-season earlier than expected to make a point to the manager at Sunderland," said the Waterford man. "He has to fight for the No 1 jersey. I think Mr O'Neill knows he has a tough decision on his hands. I don't think it will be a problem whatever the case may be -- but if he's No 1 for Ireland, then he'll need to be No 1 for Sunderland."
Giovanni Trapattoni interjected at that point, stressing that both Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews had improved their club situations by gaining international recognition. But Westwood faces a dilemma.
With everything else that has been going on, there are angles to this game which have gone unnoticed. Serbia were Trapattoni's first opponents four and a quarter years ago in Croke Park, and his starting team for tonight features two survivors -- defenders Stephen Kelly and Paul McShane, who are set to figure as full-backs.
Shane Long came off the bench, while O'Shea and Westwood were unused substitutes. That was the latter's first taste of an international football environment after he was called up for the training camp in the Algarve. O'Shea was nursing a knock at the time; he has been selected when available.
He partners Darren O'Dea at centre-half tonight and it is a proud moment for the Waterford man as he skippers the team for the first time, becoming the seventh different captain of the Trapattoni era.
"It's something I can look back on at the end of my career," he said. "I can tell my family and kids about it. I've been captain at U-15, U-16, U-18 and U-21 at some stages, and this is a huge honour."
Could it be a permanent gig? "If it did turn out that all the lads did retire, it would be a case of turning around and being the elder statesman," he said, before grinning. "I always ducked under the radar with the other lads around."
His general tone suggested that he doesn't expect that situation come to pass, yet the 31-year-old acknowledges that he needs to be a guiding force. And he is positive about what his clubmate James McClean, James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman can bring to the team.
Trapattoni suggested that the latter might figure as a right-back tomorrow, before clarifying that it depended on the circumstances of the game.
After talking about tactical adjustments, it seems that it will be more of the same tomorrow, with Jon Walters, possibly, dropping back to provide midfield support if the Serbs are on top.
After the disappointment of the Euros, the manager is keen to build up confidence, and that has taken precedence over radical experimentation.
"We always watch about the result. It matters for the ranking also," Trapattoni said. "And it can build up the confidence and trust for the team.
"If we have young players, like McCarthy, like McClean, the problem is that morale can go down if we have a bad game. I would like to try Coleman at right-back, but the game will tell me if it's possible or not possible. A good result will help the team."
And, for Westwood, a clean sheet would certainly represent a positive start to a fresh chapter.
Serbia (probable 4-3-3) -- Stojkovic; Ivanovic, Subotic, Bisevac, Kolarov; Basta, Kuzmanovic, Ignjovski; Tosic, Tadic, Lekic.
Ireland (4-4-2) -- Westwood; McShane, O'Shea, O'Dea, Kelly; McGeady, Whelan, McCarthy, McClean; Walters, Long.