Monday 19 March 2018


David Kelly

David Kelly

As international football goes, this is pantomime time. The only hazards to be found in this Lilliputian jurisdiction are of the natural variety, but the local guide informs us that he doesn't expect any earthquakes or landslides this side of Christmas.

His football team, he smiles, will not be a threat. And, yet, the visitors arrive here as if their challenge is to descend the ski slopes of Andorra La Vella rather than despatch the world's worst international football team.

Ireland's current mob may have their problems in terms of style and verve -- and they remain valid -- but not in this village. Even if their curious approach to the politics of the game suggests trepidation rather than intimidation.

Irish teams wallow in humility and, indeed, it's from this self-effacing position that some of the country's best international performances are produced, whatever the code.

The danger for Ireland is that they allow their off-field demeanour to translate into on-field timidity when a training game against traffic cones would cause more difficulty.

That nonsense from Marco Tardelli about swapping his World Cup winner's medal to ensure a result here is deserving of contempt.

A little more conviction in terms of how the team aims to apply itself represent his and the manager's job detail, not folksy claptrap to please the fans and ingratiate themselves to their employers.

Giovanni Trapattoni has spent all week tossing us Italian piseogs as if to demonstrate that a lifelong career of extraordinary highs and lows have inured him against doing anything other than treating Andorra, who have lost all 37 games they have played since beating Macedonia in 2006, as if they were Brazil.

Yesterday, he continued in this vein, declaring: "It is important not to underestimate this team, even though they are last in the table. They are a fast team and they have technically good players. It's important we think about their quality."

As an exercise in obviating against complacency, his caution is admirable but surely such restraint is needless given the respective quality levels of the teams, regardless of the unusual circumstances surrounding the game.

And, yet, his captain is portraying a similar sense of unease.

"By no means is this going to be a walkover," said Robbie Keane. "It's going to be a tough game.

"The circumstances will give them a chance, of course it will. It's not going to be an easy game and one we have to concentrate on."

If Ireland play the game as poorly as they have talked it, victory will still be achieved, but without the valour and verve one would hope to expect from a team with designs on qualification for their first major championship in a decade.

Much of a team that has spent much of that time expanding their mansions and filling their bank accounts by the wheelbarrow are running out of opportunities to parade their talents on a grander stage.

There is still the tantalising chance that, should other results go their way in this evening's preceding qualification games, Ireland could have pole position in their sights next Tuesday night when Armenia come to their front room.

Should that opportunity arise, what better way to approach the task than on the back of a hefty, confidence-boosting exercise in ruthless elimination of the opponent that is presented to them this evening?

As we checked out of our hotel beside the Nou Camp yesterday morning, we were reminded of Ireland's last trip to play Andorra, next door in the Mini Estadi, when Ireland last stood on the verge of qualification for a major championship.

It is difficult to generate much of a vibe for a repeat sensation, but there is still time to do so.

A convincing display this evening would engender much more confidence ahead of the visit of the tricky Armenians than a characteristically spluttering, unimaginative display.

Events elsewhere can help, too, particularly if Slovakia, still shamed after their implosion against dark horses Armenia last time out, manage to reel off a shock against the injury-afflicted Russians.

Ten years ago, Ireland toiled against Andorra initially, but eventually secured the scruffiest of 4-0 victories.

Mick McCarthy had been receiving texts from a Portuguese friend all evening with updates from the crucial Holland v Portugal clash.

As we waited to board the flight back to Dublin, Holland were 2-0 up and cruising, a result which would have brought them right back into contention for World Cup qualification.

But, while McCarthy was checking in, his mobile phone bleeped to tell him that the Portuguese were launching a comeback. By passport control, Pauleta had pulled a goal back with seven minutes to go.

In the dying seconds, Portugal were awarded a penalty and Figo smacked it home as McCarthy was ascending the stairs to the departure gates.

The Irish manager let rip an incredible whelp of delight which transmitted the news to his players and the thronged supporters.

Ireland will hope for similar luck elsewhere tonight. But it would be nice if they could impose themselves on the Andorran minnows -- much as Roy Keane did that night in the Mini Estadi.

With Richard Dunne absent through suspension, Ireland need somebody to step up to the plate and grab this game, and the tantalising prospect of qualification, by the scruff of the neck.

The midfielders are unlikely heroes so perhaps one might suggest that Damien Duff can light the blue touchpaper for a convincing Irish display, one that can announce his team as serious contenders for a berth in next summer's big top jamboree.

His team-mates can deliver more, too. In congress yesterday morning, Trapattoni and Tardelli could sense that this group of players were ready. Now it is all about delivering.

"Everyone needs to give a little more," said Keane, "whether it's a case of getting to a play-off or hoping to reach the top spot. It's not that we want to do it, we have to do it."

Keane delivered this message en route from Barcelona to Andorra yesterday.

Before their team bus wound its way slowly through the treacherous hairpin turns of the Pyrenees beneath the burning orb of the midday sun, several elongated tunnels briefly masked their view of an azure sky.

One hopes in the brief moments of darkness, they spent not a moment dwelling on their darkest fears.

The mercury dial touched 32.5 degrees as the players checked in to their hotel; tonight, the temperature threatens to dip to as close to freezing as makes no difference.

This will be a place as far from their comfort zone as many of these players have ever visited. Confidence. Precision. Speed. These will be Trapattoni's last words to his team.

"I still think there's another twist in this group," said Keane. "Hopefully, it won't be for us."

It is too late for Ireland to falter now.

Irish Independent

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