Saturday 21 September 2019

Disciplined Declan Rice provides hope of bright future in green

Declan Rice. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Declan Rice. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

As the rain poured from the Parisian night sky, the mercurial Kylian Mbappe glided effortlessly across the sodden turf. Everywhere he turned, Declan Rice followed.

As briefs go, there aren't many more difficult ones in world football than keeping tabs on the PSG superstar, but Rice coped well for the most part.

It was a thankless task, yet scratch beneath the surface and the composure Rice showed against a star-studded French side certainly offered hope of a bright future.

Amidst the wave after wave of French attacks, Rice's strength on the ball was a real positive as it brought some rare respite.

The debate around the 19-year-old's best position will rumble on for a while yet, but as Roy Keane put it last week - just let the kid play.

"Let him learn his trade, we're glad to have him on board," the assistant manager said.

"Hopefully he will be a big player for Ireland for the next 10 to 15 years and not for the next 10 days."

Sitting in front of the back four, Rice had to be disciplined all evening. The fluidity of France's attack meant that Mbappe, Djibril Sidibe and Nabil Fekir were popping up in all sorts of positions.

Rice had his hands full but his positional sense is one of his strengths and he needed every bit of that at the Stade de France.

A loose pass early on wouldn't have helped any nerves, yet as the game went on, Rice grew into it.

Ireland have long been crying out for a midfielder with the ability to put his foot on the ball, and the West Ham man could yet fill that void.

Martin O'Neill's side were never likely to see much of the ball last night, yet it was noticeable that on the rare occasions that they did win possession, Rice invariably offered himself as an option.

Curiously, in his pre-match press conference, O'Neill brought up some of the mistakes that Rice has made for his club this season, and while the youngster won't have thanked him for doing so, there were no such errors last night.

Rice also possesses impressive leadership qualities. He's not afraid to bark the orders at those around him.

From that end, you get the impression that the more time he spends working with Keane, the better he will become.

This may only have been a friendly but it was another chance for Rice to stake his claim for the long road ahead.

He never looks fazed, which is pretty remarkable for someone with such experience at this level, but then again, Rice is the same age as Mbappe, and he isn't too bad.

During the warm-up, Ireland went through a routine keep-ball exercise and Rice hurled himself along the ground to intercept a pass with a slide tackle. It was clear he was up for it.

He kept his emotions in check though, save for a late, crunching, second-half tackle on Benjamin Mendy.

Meanwhile, on the sideline, Keane was probably smiling to himself thinking, 'That's my boy.'

With Mbappe playing further forward later on, Rice would have been glad to see the back of him, but his task didn't get any easier as Didier Deschamps rolled Antoine Griezmann off the bench with half an hour left to play.

It was perhaps telling that it was Alan Browne and not Rice that O'Neill opted to replace when he looked to freshen up the midfield.

The introduction of the more experienced duo of David Meyler and Harry Arter helped Rice, who played with such maturity that it seemed as though he was the veteran campaigner.

As soon as Meyler came on, he took up Rice's deep-lying position in front of the back four, which allowed the West Ham man to push further forward.

Now playing alongside Arter and Graham Burke, Rice didn't get a chance to show what he is capable of as an attacking threat, but his ability to switch positions is something that O'Neill likes.

"He's got flexibility, it will probably depend on his club football more than anything else," O'Neill said when asked what position he will end up in the long term.

"For the moment, I don't think it's any bad thing for him. He's stepped into a struggling West Ham team, he's coped admirably, with teams that have been pushed to him.

"He will eventually settle into a position where he feels comfortable."

Rice's brief stint slightly further forward didn't last long as O'Neill again shuffled his pack and switched him to centre-half for the final 12 minutes.

Now it was his turn to shadow Olivier Giroud who was largely kept quiet, but by that stage, the game was well up.

At the end of it all, this was a considerable step up from anything Rice has faced in his fledgling career, yet he passed an extremely tough test.

O'Neill will hope that he settles into a position sooner rather than later, and that will largely depend on how new Hammers boss Manuel Pellegrini views the situation.

One thing that does look likely, however, is that Rice will be a mainstay in this Ireland team for many years to come.

Irish Independent

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