Friday 23 March 2018

No alternatives in our battle for second place

Last week's results showed us the extent of our limitations, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

Robbie Keane's problem is not that he plays too few games, but that he plays too many.

The idea that Robbie Keane is missing chances because he isn't playing for Tottenham Hotspur will puzzle those who recall him missing chances when he was playing every week. Keane has always managed to miss simple chances, something he did again in Zilina.

No matter how Giovanni Trapattoni tried to spin it, the problem with Keane is not that he has lost his place in the Spurs side.

After a career spent changing clubs whenever circumstance changed, Keane elected in the summer to stay at White Hart Lane despite the rumours that his relationship with Harry Redknapp had deteriorated. On Monday night, he ended the press conference by asking one reporter to let it be known that a story claiming he had a huge row with Harry Redknapp was "a zillion per cent bollocks."

Keane is a big figure at Tottenham. He has a close relationship with the chairman Daniel Levy and clearly feels attached to the place. Keane's failure to settle was often held against him. Now his refusal to go has become the problem.

But it is not the problem. Keane is a complex problem for Ireland and Trapattoni.

Nothing that happened last week was unusual in the career path of Robbie Keane.

He is Ireland's record goalscorer but remains a frustrating player. He brings personality onto the pitch as well as tremendous ability.

He has become a more effective player under Trapattoni, playing his best game for his country in Paris when he scored and contributed greatly to Ireland's impressive display.

He is also an influential player within the Ireland squad and on the field.

"Psychologically, the referee has respect for a big player like Robbie," Trapattoni said last week. "To Robbie he might say, 'please, calm down', to a less famous player he would show a yellow card."

He might, as Ireland found against Russia, also have an influence in winning penalties that wouldn't be given if the foul was on, say, Andy Keogh.

"It's typical," says Trapattoni. "But the reason he plays is not if he's famous or not. If I had another with his quality, I could choose but he plays because it is best for the team, the team always is first. Sure the ref has respect for him but that's not why I pick him."

Again Keane had one of those weeks in which he was anonymous in much of the football, such as it was, played by the Irish team.

Keane's influence may sometimes be harder to detect or maybe even imperceptible but Trapattoni and others insist it is there.

In all the talk of Irish formations, it is clear that as long as Kevin Doyle remains Ireland's best player and Keane among its most influential, there is no way things can change.

Keane is at his best playing off a target man and although there is more to his game, that is what Doyle has become.

Trapattoni says he would consider playing James McCarthy behind one striker, but that one striker would have to be Doyle. Keane can't play that role but Keane will not be dropped.

"At the moment, no," Trapattoni says when asked if he would leave Keane out. "Would I? Depends on what options I have, that is important. Robbie may come in November, he may not play for club. Doyle comes here white like this table because he is always running."

So Doyle is playing too much and Keane not enough.

Trapattoni's repeated references to his players' need for first-team football was a nice bit of deflection last week. Trapattoni can do nothing about this but also he can't be criticised for it. Even if it is his decision to select them.

Instead it was used as a reason for Ireland's current problems, when it has always been one of Ireland's problems.

Even in the golden age, people would ask about Mick McCarthy's or Kevin Moran's lack of games but now the failure to make the team points to a greater problem.

Essentially, Trapattoni is saying that Ireland's players aren't good enough. If they were, they wouldn't have a problem finding the right place to play football.

Instead they are always making their own arrangements. Those like Keane and Darron Gibson are reluctant to leave big clubs, even if they don't play very often, while the majority scramble around at a lower level.

Yet expectations remain the same. Ireland lose to Russia and people wonder why. There are things that Trapattoni could change and the performance in Paris showed that trusting the players to play is the most pragmatic thing of all. But Ireland cannot avoid the absence of real talent.

"You can't really dampen expectations, that's part and parcel of it," Shay Given said after Tuesday's game. "But looking at the Russian team, most of their players play in the Champions League and Premier League. There's a slight difference in population alright too. I guess expectations are very high but that probably comes from the qualifications beforehand. With Jack we qualified for most tournaments so there's a lot of pressure on the lads to do that."

Given said it may be the young and inexperienced players who feel this weight of expectation but they are supported by the management. Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli are talking up Paul Green. Tardelli embraced Shane Long as he left the field on Tuesday night. He is a player Tardelli has championed and as he stood at the back of the press room in Zilina, he expressed pleasure with his performance. But he went on to list a number of other players, including Green, and expressing astonishment that he had received criticism.

Green has obeyed orders, but there is a circular logic to his play: he only works so hard to win the ball back because he is one of the reasons Ireland can't keep the ball.

Trapattoni doesn't want it any other way. These are the qualities he admires and they are the ones he feels certain he can draw from his players. Their technical ability might be harder to rely on so Trapattoni won't risk it at all.

The danger in his approach is that Ireland still look like conceding sloppy goals -- two set-pieces in two games is a desperate return for a man who talks about the little details -- and when they do, they have no creative ideas.

Ireland were praised for their performance against Slovakia and it had more variety than the Russia game, but Ireland always crash up against the wall of their limitations.

Richard Dunne's comments had created the story. "You got enough headlines out of me last week," Dunne said as he went through the mixed zone on Tuesday night, but he was only reflecting the frustrations of several players.

It wasn't Trapattoni's best week. He had seemed startled by the Russian performance, even if he said it was exactly what he anticipated.

Zilina allowed Ireland to recover some self-respect and there was talk that Ireland deserved to win, but ultimately Ireland is now fighting for second place. Ireland will always be fighting for second place.

But they can ask that Trapattoni tries to be more creative and stops ignoring the creative players.

Ireland are not going to abandon the long ball.

"It's not something we're going to stop doing just because we got some stick for it," Shay Given said. "We're still going to do it because it's a strength but we've got to pass it as well."

They will need Trapattoni to provide more leadership than he did over the past ten days, but it is the first time that has been lacking from him. He now must compete for the affection of the supporters with John Delaney who was chaired, like some returning anti-communist dissident, away from Zilina train station having picked up the bar tab on the train from Bratislava.

This populist act made the Irish fans happy, or at least very, very drunk, it was hard to tell the difference and allowed one man to feel their love.

Trapattoni won't be moved. He has his own ideas. Robbie Keane is central to them and it's right that he is. Ireland have no alternative. That's their problem, not Keane's.

Sunday Independent

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