The future's orange
FROM the storm to the calm. All was peaceful in Ireland's Italian base yesterday.
Ireland are ready to leave now. And, as Giovanni Trapattoni strolled through the training pitch, while a lively 11 v 11 training match proceeded around him, he looked to be a happy man.
It's turned out to be quite a good week for the Ireland manager, despite the cruel manner of Kevin Foley's departure from the camp. For when it comes to the serious business of Poland, the reality is that the country's hopes will likely rest on the health of the men numbered one to 11 on the UEFA list that was submitted on Tuesday.
Only a handful of the others will be needed if Trapattoni has his way. And that divide was clearly illustrated here, in a session that had good life to it.
All 23 players were present and correct, so the three goalkeepers rotated. But it was the orange-bibbed team which looked extremely familiar.
Given in goal, John O'Shea right-back, Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger centre-halves, Stephen Ward left-back, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff raiding the flanks with Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews in the centre of the park, and Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane ahead of them.
Over the past fortnight, Given, O'Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Andrews and Keane have all been the subject of major or minor injury scares. Yet after a week in which the players waved goodbye to Foley and Keith Fahey with a heavy heart, Trapattoni is, ultimately, more concerned about the fate of his chosen ones.
The next hurdle now is Monday's friendly with Hungary in Budapest. Tomorrow morning, the team will fly there, ready to progress to the next level. Around Montecatini this week, there has been some room for enjoyment, like the round of golf and the trip to Florence.
In the evenings, the squad have been allowed to ramble around the sleepy spa town and chill out. On Thursday night, Richard Dunne sat out with a coffee while an Italian band rattled out some Irish ballads. There'll be a bit more ceremony today, when Trapattoni and assistant Marco Tardelli are feted again by the local authorities. But the flight to Budapest is a line in the sand.
"The players are relaxed now, but I think when we go to Hungary, it's possible to change some things in our mentality," stressed Tardelli yesterday.
"Against Hungary, it will be a very, very important match because the players will start to focus strongly for Poland."
That's why they have to leave any feelings from Italy behind.
Foley's friends weren't chuffed about the manner in which he was let go, but it's believed that the player himself has recognised there is no point dwelling on it now. He won't be speaking any further on the matter because he is aware it could be a distraction from the task that faces his colleagues in Gdansk and Poznan. At heart he is a team player, whatever his feelings on Trapattoni.
The concerns that linger for the management team are the fitness of Given and O'Shea, the latter in particular. In training, they appear absolutely fine. However, Tardelli acknowledges they both need the confidence of coming through a meaningful match.
"They have worked very hard," he said.
"But they need to play against Hungary. It's important for the team, but also for O'Shea.
"I think John could have played in the friendly match against the local selection a few days ago, but it was better to rest him as a precaution."
The 11 v 11 exercise yesterday delivered a picture of the alternatives. Keiren Westwood as reserve 'keeper, with Stephen Kelly right-back, Stephen Hunt covering at left-full, with Darren O'Dea and Paul McShane in the centre of defence. Then, it was Paul Green and Darron Gibson in the centre of the park, with James McClean left, Simon Cox right, and the front pair of Shane Long and Jonathan Walters.
They know where they stand with a week to go. Westwood and Kelly are on standby for Given and O'Shea. Gibson might fancy his prospects as an alternative to Whelan and Andrews in a game where Ireland need invention. Similarly, McClean is growing in confidence and, like Hunt, will be confident of featuring as an impact sub. The Sunderland man may have the edge at this stage of preparations.
It's probably the strikers who can be most encouraged about their chance of seeing action. Walters believes it's the best position to be a reserve in as Trapattoni is likely to recharge his forward options during a game whatever the situation may be.
Doyle showed some encouraging signs in last Saturday's win over Bosnia and the change of scenery away from Wolves may well have benefited the Wexford man.
Nevertheless, of the current starting XI, he is probably the most vulnerable if Hungary doesn't go to plan. Trapattoni has shown a willingness to favour Long in the past and Walters' ability to function as a fifth midfielder could stand to him for the challenges that lie ahead.
So, there will be something to play for in Budapest, with the men who were given the orange sign of approval in Montecatini needing to raise their game to the next level.
"We are very happy now," said Tardelli.
"The players are fit and they were smiling during training. For us, that is very important."
Eight days from now, they will be ready to face the real thing. It's time to look forward and leave everything else behind.