Sport Soccer

Friday 23 February 2018

Irish desperate for return of home rule

Keane eager for precious win to restore Lansdowne's fortress status

James McClean will play key role in Ireland's efforts to break down Sweden's defence
James McClean will play key role in Ireland's efforts to break down Sweden's defence
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"THIS is it," announced Robbie Keane, summing up the magnitude of the occasion with his opening statement.

Since the draw for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers in Rio over two years ago pitted Ireland in a group where runners-up was, realistically, the best possible finishing position, this week has been underlined in red marker.

It was always going to come down to this: Sweden home, Austria away. Get it wrong and Ireland fans will also be watching next summer from afar.

Keane was speaking in Lansdowne Road, an unusual location for an Ireland pre-match press conference.

In the Trapattoni era, the preliminaries have taken place in Malahide, but the installation of a new surface over the summer is the reason why they stretched their legs at the match venue. Few tears will be shed for the old one.

Vulnerable

A visiting journalist cut to the chase when he simply asked Keane why Ireland are so good away from home and vulnerable in Dublin.

It is 12 years since Ireland have registered a home win over a higher seeded team in a qualifying campaign, the famous vanquishing of Holland with the help of Jason McAteer's magic moment.

Since then, there have been near misses in different settings, like France in '05 at the old ground, and the spurned leads against Bulgaria and Italy at Croke Park in the aborted attempt to reach the last World Cup.

Visiting nations have happier memories of the renovated Lansdowne, with Germany and Russia running riot and Slovakia escaping with an easy ride.

The welcome news of a predicted sell-out should add to the intimidation factor, but a landmark win is required on the way to regaining the fortress status that underpinned successful campaigns to reach three previous World Cup finals.

Much as Keane says that the players tend not to dwell on long-term statistics, the manner of the late collapse against Austria in March asked further questions about the strength of character when the chequered flag comes into view.

On their travels, this Irish team has a welcome habit of turning an expected defeat into a draw, yet the perception is that they are capable of turning three points into one fairly easily in front of their own followers.

"If we get a result here, maybe that will change a few people's opinions," stressed Keane.

He stopped short of describing the game as 'must-win', as a draw plus three points in Austria would leave Ireland in contention heading into the next month.

That scenario would require a favour from Kazakhstan when they host Sweden next week, though, and considering that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co finish up with a pair of home fixtures, Ireland simply have to gain three points on the Scandinavians this evening, particularly as an anticipated triumph for Germany over Austria in Munich would put Trapattoni's men in a position of strength going to Vienna.

Swedish coach Erik Hamren feels that Ireland will be more adventurous than in the scoreless draw in Stockholm, although his opposite number believes that a similar display with a clinical edge would be sufficient.

"We played well," said Trapattoni. "If we repeat that performance and take our chances, we can win."

Two of the better Irish contributors from that night are selected, with David Forde preferred to Keiren Westwood and James McClean winning the battle to start on the left flank ahead of Robbie Brady, Simon Cox and wildcard Anthony Pilkington.

"At first, I thought I would play with four strikers," said Trapattoni, a reference to his inclination towards Cox with Jon Walters, a natural frontman, on the right flank.

Opportunities

"But, James did well in Sweden, and during the game, we can have other tactical opportunities."

Mikael Lustig, the Celtic full-back, was given a hard time by the Wigan recruit last time around and he also has fitness concerns hanging over him for the reunion.

With the gaping hole left by Damien Duff's retirement still visible, this is a huge opportunity for the Derry man to stamp his succession claims in the absence of Aiden McGeady.

Ireland's real achievement in the initial joust with Sweden was the manner in which Ibrahimovic was kept relatively quiet. He will have better support this time in the form of Johan Elmander, but then the hosts will also benefit from the totemic presence of Richard Dunne.

"A massive, massive presence," emphasised Keane. "He's my mate and I know how frustrating it's been for him to be out since the Euros. And he's excited to be back in the fold, he feels fit, he looks sharp and any player who comes up against Richard knows they're in for a tough night."

Marc Wilson has shaken off an ankle problem to take his place at left-back while Seamus Coleman has slipped under the radar this week as discussion has been dominated by transfer developments involving two other key men who have become regulars since the Euros, namely, James McCarthy and Shane Long.

Coleman may arguably be the most potent weapon at Trapattoni's disposal, overlapping from full-back with a view to giving Swedish left-back Martin Olsson a difficult evening and pegging back dangerous Fulham winger Alexander Kacaniklic.

Profligate

Still, after a profligate friendly outing in Wales, it is the man positioned to Trapattoni's left in the pre-match conference who could take centre stage.

Keane carried injuries into the Stockholm meeting and looked a shadow of himself in a phoney war where he was primarily containing rather than attacking. The pain of his exertions meant he missed the subsequent draw with the Austrians.

Indeed, injury means that the 3-0 dismissal of the Faroes – where he came away with the match ball – has been his only Aviva outing in this campaign.

Unlike the other double headers in Group C, he has arrived from Los Angeles in good health, evidenced by seven goals in four outings.

Sweden have defensive frailties to exploit. Hamren is unsure of his best team and, with Andreas Granqvist suspended and West Brom's Jonas Olsson seemingly out of favour, the centre-half pairing of Per Nilsson and Mikael Antonsson are positioned to feature. Like Dunne and O'Shea they are thirtysomethings, but the contrast is that they only have 18 caps between them.

The future of both coaches could hinge on the outcome of this week. Hamren may have the best player in Ibrahimovic yet it is Trapattoni who seems to have greater conviction with regard to the collective. This can be the night they send the majority of the crowd home happy.

Verdict: Ireland 2 Sweden 1

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