Ndo fitness key to Sligo overcoming stubborn Drogheda resistance
JOSEPH NDO likes to keep people waiting. The veteran Sligo Rovers midfielder has a mischievous ability to create mystery.
He is the only injury doubt in either camp heading into tomorrow's FAI Cup final and, earlier this week, he delivered a trademark answer on his recovery prospects.
"I'm getting there," he smiled. "I think, by Monday, I'm going to be fit."
Ndo knows his importance. "I'm more than a genius," he joked in response to a question arising from his general views on the evolution of the game in Ireland since he arrived on these shores a decade ago.
The former Cameroon international, a member of World Cup squads in 1998 and 2002, was bemoaning the fact that Irish players he has encountered in that time have failed to push on from the League of Ireland and gain international recognition.
"There are some players that are happy to be good and don't want to do anymore," he explained.
His general analysis, however, is that the technical quality of player has gradually improved during his Irish stay because managers have encouraged them to do so.
Those who promote the domestic game always look for the FAI Cup final to showcase that argument and, fittingly, Ndo's wellbeing will be central to that.
In the wide expanses of the Aviva Stadium, the key to success for Sligo Rovers in this game is playing at a high tempo and looking to stretch a Drogheda side that will be looking to snuff out their threat and strike on the break.
"They're massive favourites," said the Louth club's boss Mick Cooke, who will leave the club in acrimonious circumstances tomorrow. "I certainly think we'll have to produce a performance on a par with the ones against Malmo."
The comparison is interesting. Cooke's charges performed very well against the Swedes, playing conservatively to secure a 'home' draw in Tallaght and then losing 2-0 away with the decisive strike coming in time added on.
If the approach to that tie is repeated, then Alan Byrne will be deployed in front of the back four, aiming to stop a Sligo group which has a greater range of attacking midfield options. Rovers, as the favourites, know they have to take the game to their opposition and Ndo, as the fulcrum, will be central to that mission.
"We've got to do what we've been doing the majority of the year and move the ball quick, and get the players on it who can hurt teams and give us joy," said Danny Ventre, who is likely to be deployed next to Ndo.
Manager Ian Baraclough faces some tough decisions. Kieran Djilali has shone in the final third of the campaign and is a candidate for the No 10 role behind either Danny North or Anthony Elding.
Aaron Greene, Ross Gaynor and Raffaele Cretaro are pushing for involvement in wide areas, although Greene has the flexibility to operate in a number of roles. And there's also David Cawley and Lee Lynch to consider.
"There has been competition for places all season but these last two or three weeks have been the first time where I've probably had all 22 or 23 players staking a real claim," explained Baraclough. "I am going to have to disappoint some, but that's my job and it's what I get paid for. Hopefully we get it right on the day."
A key variable to factor into cup final thoughts is how teams respond to the salubrious backdrop. In Sligo's favour, they have plenty of experience. This is their fourth final appearance in five years and a third outing at the Aviva.
Drogheda are a decent side, and have the ability to drag the Connacht side into a battle. But if this fight goes the distance, the favourites should have the diversity on the bench to dig them out of a hole.
Verdict: Sligo Rovers