Keane dilemma for Trap
ROBBIE KEANE's injury problems have given Giovanni Trapattoni a serious tactical dilemma ahead of the game that will ultimately decide his future.
The Irish captain is a major doubt for the concluding Euro 2012 qualifier with Armenia. A scan on a glute muscle problem on Saturday evening revealed bad news, and Marco Tardelli yesterday admitted that, if the game was being played today, the Dubliner would be unavailable.
Furthermore, he added that Keane is unlikely to be involved in today's training session in Malahide, although Trapattoni is likely to give his skipper every chance to recover.
If Keane fails to make it, his absence will present the 72-year-old Ireland manager with a dilemma on two fronts.
Keane has missed only one competitive game in Trapattoni's tenure - and that was the dead rubber against Montenegro at the tail end of the World Cup campaign.
This is a different ball game altogether and the Irish boss will have to earn his corn by coming up with the right answers to some key questions.
The common assumption is that Shane Long will come straight in and partner Kevin Doyle if Keane is ruled out. While that may be the most likely option, it's not a banker.
As is often the case, Ireland face the prospect of being outnumbered in midfield by a technically assured Armenian side.
Rather than changing his system, Trapattoni prefers to counter the imbalance by encouraging Keane to drop back and support. This was certainly the case in Moscow, although it failed to stop a rampant Russian side.
Neither Long nor Doyle have much experience of operating as a withdrawn second striker, and this is something that the manager will have to contemplate.
Simon Cox, a recent favourite of Trapattoni's, is comfortable in that role, but he has been reduced to a bit-part contribution at West Brom this season following Long's arrival.
An intriguing option would be Jonathan Walters. The Stoke man joined up with the squad on Saturday, having missed the Andorra trip with an ankle problem.
Walters is an extremely energetic player with real pace and a defensive aptitude. He could link the play effectively, but it would be a surprise if Trapattoni bumped him up the queue.
DIRECT ROUTE TO GOAL
Ireland operate with a direct enough style as it is, but the suspicion is that it would be particularly suited to this encounter.
With 21 goals in the group, Armenia are obviously a potent force. Defensively, however, Tardelli believes they have some weaknesses. They conceded a soft goal from a corner in Friday's 4-1 thrashing of Macedonia, and Ireland's winning goal in Yerevan last September arose from a relatively straightforward cross into the box.
Considering they are a young side, their coach Vardan Minasyan has suggested that he is sometimes worried about his team's physicality.
Doyle, who was outstanding in Armenia, is sure to be a key player here. It would be a bold move by Trapattoni to throw Long into the mix as well. The West Brom attacker has given vaunted defences some problems this season with his pace and power and, for Ireland, the best option in this match could be to bypass midfield and press the Armenians high up the pitch looking to force errors.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
Armenia counter-attack with intent and that is likely to be in Trapattoni's mind when he confirms the identity of his back four this afternoon. Stephen Ward's suspension means there is a vacancy at left-back, and the return of Richard Dunne means that Darren O'Dea -- who sat out part of training yesterday -- will take a back-seat role.
O'Dea can operate at left-back, although it's a role that he doesn't particularly enjoy. However, the pace that the Armenians have is almost certainly going to prompt a recall for Stephen Kelly.
The Fulham defender has performed competently when called upon in this campaign, and he is quick off his feet. He can operate on either flank, yet the likely scenario is that John O'Shea will relocate to the left side of defence, with Kelly slotting in at right-full.
TO DRAW OR NOT TO DRAW?
What if this game is 0-0 at half-time? It would place Ireland in a nervous position. Trapattoni's conservatism is clearly apparent, but it is stretching it to suggest that he always sets his team up in search of a draw.
During the past three years, Ireland have actually started games reasonably well and frequently broken the deadlock in the opening quarter of an hour.
The problem has been retaining that intensity, with a gradual shift to containment as the minutes pass, allowing the opposition to get comfortable on the ball and grow into the game. Similarly, with regard to substitutions, Trapattoni then takes a pragmatic approach with a view to seeing the match out.
With eight clean sheets in a row, he understandably has a lot of confidence in his defence. "Our team knows what to do, and knows when to stay calm in difficult moments," he stressed.
Nevertheless, with the players aware they have a good chance of being seeded if they can finish as runners-up, then it's inevitable that some anxiety will kick in if the match is finely poised entering the final quarter.
"Obviously Armenia will play to win the game. They have the possibility," said Trapattoni on Saturday. "We will also play to win, but afterwards we can accept a draw."
It would be a dangerous game to settle for that outcome any earlier.