Keane eager to banish hurt of Gdansk
'You could play Spain in a phonebox and they'd still keep the ball off you – it's a great opportunity to take on best'
FOR Irish youngsters, summertime is synonymous with exams. The inexperienced group that Giovanni Trapattoni has brought to New York are about to face the sternest test international football has to offer.
They've heard the warnings from those who were on the receiving end in Gdansk 12 months ago as Spain tormented a bunch of senior pros, making a mockery of the assertion that Ireland are difficult to beat.
Robbie Keane was there, and admits the manner of the 4-0 defeat was hard to take. Still, he managed a brief smile yesterday when an American journalist asked if the tight confines of the Yankee Stadium, the iconic baseball venue, could make life easier for the underdogs. Heavy rain could also affect the standard of the pitch.
"You could play Spain in a phonebox and they'd still keep the ball off you," he replied, in a flash. "They're the best team I've ever played against."
The World and European champions, who head to Brazil for the Confederations Cup after this fixture, will not encounter Ireland's strongest team, with Giovanni Trapattoni working off a depleted group and selecting an XI which is prioritising containment.
As he reflected on the Euros experience, the 74-year-old again shook his head and suggested that he would like to do it all again, repeating his surprise that the team who qualified for the finals could perform in such a scattered fashion. "I couldn't understand it," he sighed. "They had this weight, this anxiety on their shoulders."
Sometimes, the enthusiasm of youth can over-ride those fears. Ireland were the oldest team at the Euros, and the quick passing and movement of the eventual tournament winners made them look particularly one-paced on that miserable Polish evening.
The legacy of this exhibition – which is unlikely to be played in front of a full house, with ticket prices slashed over the last week – could be the relevance for the long-term future.
While Keane represents the generation of players who have shouldered the burden of responsibility for the last decade, the key figures in midfield tonight are the new crop who are likely to carry the flame for the foreseeable future. The pairing of James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick excites both the manager and skipper.
"These lads will be around for a long, long time," enthused Keane, "They're two very athletic players, good with the ball. It's a great opportunity for them now, to take on Xavi and Iniesta, two of the best the game has to offer."
They will be supported from wide by Seamus Coleman and Andy Keogh, with Trapattoni explaining that the reasons for pushing the Everton full-back further up the park and the Millwall striker into a wide role will become clearer afterwards.
"We have to meet them where they are strong," he explained, perhaps a reference to the freedom which the Spanish full-backs enjoyed last year, effectively operating as auxiliary wingers. "Spain have the usual habits, they control the ball and sometimes people can get a little bored. It's important for our players not to sleep."
Certainly, the concentration of the Irish rearguard will be tested. Toronto centre-back Darren O'Dea comes in for his first outing of this four-game session to partner Sean St Ledger in the heart of the back four.
With neither right-full Paul McShane nor left-back Stephen Kelly operating in their favourite position, the quartet are battling against the odds to withstand a barrage of Spanish pressure.
They know that Spain have an incredible depth of attacking reserves to choose from. Vicente Del Bosque is planning to tinker with the team which scored an uninspiring 2-1 victory over Haiti in Miami at the weekend.
However, he gave little away about who will actually start, with most questions dominated by reports of a rift between defender Alvaro Arbeloa and Iker Casillas, with the former wheeled out to deny there was any difficulties between the Real Madrid pair.
"We wear the same crest on our shirt," said the ex-Liverpool defender.
Del Bosque did confirm that David Villa would lead the line, with Fernando Torres stepping out, while Arsenal's Santi Cazorla will be retained in an attacking midfield role, with Victor Valdes likely to replace Casillas between the sticks.
Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique should also come into contention for either a prominent role from the outset or a significant second-half contribution.
Trapattoni's 19-man panel is weighted heavily towards defenders, with Simon Cox the only back-up for front pair Keane and Conor Sammon, who have linked to good effect in the latter stages of matches.
"I've been surprised by how quick he is," explained Keane, whose brother-in-law is pals with Sammon so he'd heard about him before. "People look at him as a target man, but he's got more than that, a good touch for a big man."
While the full-time whistle will mark the beginning of the summer holidays for all of his team-mates apart from O'Dea, Keane is happy playing in the USA, feeling it has helped to prolong his career. He finds it preferable to the slog of life in the lower reaches of the Premier League.
"You're just playing for the sake of playing and making the numbers up unless you are playing for Manchester United or Chelsea or Tottenham or Liverpool," he said.
"I am very content where I am in this situation in my life."
He acknowledged that he is thinking further about his previously aired plans to move into management.
"I analyse the game more now. When I stop playing football, what else am I going to do? This is all I know," he stressed. "But I'm going to keep going for as long as I can."
The experience of the last fortnight has provided encouragement that he has talent around him that can make it possible. "I think these two weeks together have been our best in a while in terms of the bonding and the young lads feeling a part of it, and that all comes with results."
Avoiding defeat in the Big Apple will be difficult, but a spirited display from the young guns can help erase the memories of Gdansk and make this a fruitful journey.
Verdict: Spain 3 Ireland 1