‘Our weapons are ready – the guns are out’
Manager demands ‘incisiveness’ in pivotal clash as Ireland bid to take huge stride towards Euro finals
THE last stand or the ticket to a new contract? For Giovanni Trapattoni, the implications of tonight's showdown with Slovakia are enormous.
Some games need selling, but the importance of this encounter speaks for itself. Ireland must win to retain hopes of qualifying automatically for next summer's European Championships. A draw would complicate the process of making the play-offs.
After a week where numerous players and members of staff have praised the spirit and belief in the camp, the reality is that it will count for nothing unless Ireland secure their first competitive victory over a higher seed in 10 years.
That barren run needs to end or else Tuesday's encounter in Moscow could prove to be the last meaningful trip of the Trapattoni regime. For those who are mulling over their international futures, with Shay Given and Richard Dunne vocalising that sentiment in recent weeks, it might be the last hurrah as well.
The manager wants to stay on, but the FAI were always going to hold off on extending his deal until the outcome of this week. When the fixtures for this group were decided by computer, it was obvious that Irish hopes would revolve around two double-headers with Russia and Slovakia.
Last October's haul of one point from six left Trapattoni's men in a difficult position. Efficient performances against the lower-ranked teams -- while both the top seeds have dropped points -- has succeeded in restoring parity.
But it was always going to come down to this week. A win over Slovakia would leave Ireland in a position where it would be extremely hard for Vladimir Weiss' side to overtake them. Trapattoni needs his players to produce a commanding display at the Aviva Stadium when it matters.
A repeat of the opening which led to a disastrous humbling by Russia would be impossible to defend.
The big-money manager has gambled by leaving Kevin Doyle on the bench and going with the in-form Shane Long as Robbie Keane's strike partner. Doyle and Long are inextricably linked through their career path and the Tipp lad has always been cast in the role of understudy. This is a big call from Trapattoni.
Doyle has started every qualifier when available and is pivotal to how Ireland play. He is so often the out-ball for an Irish team that struggles to monopolise possession.
The suspicion lingers that he will be required in Moscow for that very task and, with Trapattoni hinting that two big games in close proximity could be an ask for a player who has just recovered from a knee problem, it may be that he is spreading his striking options across both fixtures in the interests of freshness.
Nevertheless, all eyes will be on Long. In Doyle's absence, he thrived against the Slovakians in the 1-1 draw in Zilina last October. Nevertheless, despite his impressive start at West Brom, Trapattoni has indicated that the 24-year-old still has plenty to learn.
He has specifically referenced his contribution outside the box with respect to holding the ball up and bringing others into play.
However, with this being a must-win game, Trapattoni is willing to forget those concerns in the hope that Slovakia will be constantly on the back foot. Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady are both available for only the second time in this campaign, and their selection hints at an attacking outlook, although Stephen Hunt will be aggrieved, given his contribution in Macedonia in June.
Incisiveness is a word that has recently entered Trapattoni's vocabulary, and it was mentioned numerous times yesterday in Malahide as he hammered home the importance of this fixture.
"We must play with incisiveness and determination," he said.
"There are many considerations, including the qualities of the Slovakian defenders. Long has plenty of confidence, and is scoring goals.
"Kevin was out for one or two months, but Long has been playing every game and has grown. Kevin had no problem with the decision. I have no fear about him. And this is a game where we might need to make three offensive substitutions and it's good to have that option."
The striking selection has taken the spotlight away from a transition in the defence, with Stephen Ward's inclusion at left-back confirmed when Kevin Kilbane was forced to return to Derby with a back problem.
Ward was in pole position to start anyway, thus breaking Kilbane's astonishing run of 66 consecutive competitive appearances dating back to 1999.
After taking his time about calling the ex-Bohemians star into the squad -- his former club will benefit to to the tune of €50,000 once he lasts 15 minutes -- Trapattoni has placed a lot of faith in the Portmarnock lad. "I think he is ready," he said.
No doubt, a Slovakian team led by a wily manager will seek to place pressure on the newcomer, with the Irish team otherwise packed with international experience.
There is a shortfall in midfield cover, and James McCarthy will join up with the squad today and travel to Moscow after captaining the U-21s in Sligo last night.
He may not make the bench, though, with Kevin Foley providing the back-up to Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.
Trapattoni was sceptical about reports that Slovakian captain Marek Hamsik will miss the game and believes that Weiss will have his star man available.
Slovakia have a reputation for defending deep and springing on the counter attack on foreign soil and the Napoli playmaker is central to that.
Yet, if Weiss has watched DVDs of Ireland in action at the Aviva Stadium, he will note that teams who have taken the game to the hosts have generally fared well. It poses a dilemma.
Contrary to perception, Ireland do have a habit of going out with a positive approach under Trapattoni.
The problem is, that when they score early, they retreat into themselves and loosen the grip of control. Conceding leads against Italy and Bulgaria in Dublin proved crucial in the last campaign.
This time, there can be no such generosity.
"Our weapons are ready," declared Trapattoni. "The guns are out."
A man who has spent a lifetime in football will know that, if his team fire blanks, knives will be sharpened.
Get ready for a lively evening.