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Latest injury scare shows us how much we need Keane

Giovanni Trapattoni stormed off to the Dublin Airport-bound team bus after a difficult morning on a tricky wicket in Malahide. He had seen his star man, captain Robbie Keane, undone by a wicked bounce and a clattering challenge on his susceptible ankle from Damien Delaney in the final 1sts v 2nds workout.

The irony of the Achilles heel being exposed once more was inescapable, yet unfathomable to comprehend.

The Irish skipper, despite being buoyed by that wondrous 49th international strike against the Scots last Sunday night, had seemed a tad uneasy in the clammy conditions beneath the grey skies.

He had stretched ungainly for a couple of admittedly stray passes; his touch was unsure, but few believed he would retire hurt before stumps. He tried, vainly, to play on, but submitted to the inevitable before the final 10 minutes of action.

That his putative first XI -- including the surprise figure of the lively Simon Cox ahead of the depressed figure of Shane Long -- had been hit for six in the contest did little to lighten Trap's demeanour.

Hence, he swerved his appointment with the waiting media and, after a lengthy consultation with the team medic, assistant Marco Tardelli arrived to pronounce that his captain had been suffering with groin trouble.

Perhaps the camp didn't want to spook too much given the talisman's importance to the defining mission that lies ahead in mountainous Macedonia.

Or perhaps the blow from Delaney was a mere slight. Just as well he was on the same side as Glenn Whelan, in whom one hopes the same sense of manic aggression reveals itself when the real stuff comes around tomorrow evening.

Having also suffered a troublesome calf strain on his first day of work with doomed West Ham earlier this year, the physical frailties of Tallaght man Keane, who turns 31 next month, are already proving portentous as he totters upon the peak of a formidable career.

With debutant Cox poised to start ahead of a physically and emotionally drained Long, the importance of Keane to the Irish cause, as has been the case for much of the last decade, cannot be underestimated.

Tardelli confirms that after a seemingly endless build-up, some of it actually involving football, his players would gleefully play this Euro 2012 qualifier this evening if they had the chance.

All except the captain, that is.

"I hope Robbie Keane will be okay, but if the match was tomorrow, then he wouldn't play," confirms Tardelli succinctly, confining all other titbits of team news about the right-back, Stephen Kelly, and John O'Shea's defensive partner, Darren O'Dea, to the margins of speculation.

Throwing in Ireland's newest discovery, Cox, is a risk at the best of times; with a potentially wounded partner, it is a gambit incorporating inordinate jeopardy.

Cox, notwithstanding his inexperience at this level, and Keane dovetail more naturally than the Long-Keane partnership; in the Dublin tie, the manager was acutely conscious of the tall Tipperary man's struggles against the meaty Macedonians.

In a midfield susceptible to being once more familiarly out-gunned, Cox's role will be to link up with his middle four and allow Keane -- if fully fit -- to gambol in the open prairies nearer goal.

"It is fair to say that Simon Cox is ahead of Shane Long at this moment in time," said Tardelli. "He has impressed not just me but you as well, no? He has played well but I think he's a good player.

"For us, he's very important because he receives the ball and waits for the team. He helps the other striker. He's good.

"He works very, very hard for the team. He plays well.

"He holds up the ball well and can wait for his team-mates to link up. He is a good player. He has a good level of technical ability also.

"I remember Sean St Ledger played against Bulgaria after one training session. If the player is good, he is good.

"I think that there is still a bit of a stress after Shane Long played such a big match only on Monday.

"But the boss decides these things. Maybe it's possible he will play.

"Sometimes the young players must rest because they play all the time."

Keane has not been playing as much as his younger colleagues and yet there still remains conjecture about his fitness. And so too, inevitably, Ireland's prospects of securing the result they require.

Irish Independent