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Playing by his own rules

For all its reliance on football's base instincts, there has rarely been a reign as unorthodox as Giovanni Trapattoni's management of Ireland.

Luck had very little to do with Ireland's point in Moscow last Tuesday. There is nothing lucky in the total application of Richard Dunne. There is nothing lucky in Dunne's bravery and absolute commitment. In Moscow, when there was nothing else, Dunne was always there.

There was nothing lucky in the point. Ireland made the most of their strengths and Russia displayed all their weaknesses. Dick Advocaat's side had the chances to win the game and didn't take them. That doesn't make them unlucky, it makes them a team that doesn't take its chances.

Ireland weren't lucky in Moscow, just as they weren't unlucky in Dublin against Slovakia or in Paris against France. No matter how much they complained about the injustice, Ireland failed to take the chances to win those games.

Last week, Ireland took a most unlikely point and when Slovakia imploded, they were then in a position to take advantage. This is Trapattoni's strategy: by risking nothing, he hopes to stay alive as long as possible. In two campaigns, his teams have only beaten Georgia, Cyprus, Macedonia and Andorra at home, but they have never lost a competitive game on the road.

"If you look at the clean sheet record," Robbie Keane said in Moscow before heading to Los Angeles via Beijing, "if that had happened 15 years ago, the whole country would have been having a sing and dance about it. Times change and expectation levels change, but you've got to give the lads credit. People can say what they want, the performance and the attitude and the application of everyone tonight was absolutely superb."

At the heart of it was Dunne. "It will stand out as one of the great Irish performances," Shay Given said as he joined the chorus of praise for Ireland's real leader. "I think Richard sometimes doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's been immense both for Ireland and Aston Villa. I've seen it close at hand. He's a fantastic player."

Dunne is a player Trapattoni can rely on. "Nobody was going to get through him, he could have been playing for three or four hours and they wouldn't have scored," Glenn Whelan said. "That's the type of player he is. He comes up and gives the goods no matter who we're playing against. He's a whole-hearted player and he was magnificent again tonight."

When Trapattoni needed his players to make his baffling gameplan -- retreat, retreat, retreat -- look acceptable, they did. When they get the chance to play football, as they did in Paris, they did that too but still the manager starts from the lowest base and an assumption that this is a group that can't be trusted to do anything but the most menial in terms of creativity.

When Trapattoni mingles with his friends in European football, they might ask him how he has achieved so much, seven consecutive clean sheets, a play-off place dependent only on beating Andorra and maybe Armenia, with Darren O'Dea, Keith Andrews and Whelan.

This is an understandable point of view. If Wales or Scotland had achieved a similar result in Moscow, then it would have seemed implausible and deserving of unreserved applause.

Trapattoni may sometimes wonder about the expectation. But he too fails to give the credit to this side. In Paris, Ireland showed that they can play football and while many promised that the performance would be the beginning of a new team, if anything, the football played since has deteriorated.

Trapattoni won't be concerned as the mistakes have fallen away as well. Ireland are more solid defensively, so as a result they seem to have abandoned all hope of playing football.

The players have not lost faith in the manager, it would be preposterous to say that after Moscow, but the unnecessary comments about Kevin Doyle's fitness clearly irritated one of the most dedicated and committed players in the modern era.

There have been others who have been irritated and enraged during the years. Trapattoni asks a lot of his players and he doesn't always give much in return. Doyle is the latest to be baffled. Trapattoni talked freely about his fitness again last week, suggesting he was too important to Wolves to be rested (he has played every minute in the Premier League this season). Doyle doesn't think he has a problem but Trapattoni has made rash pronouncements about injuries part of his brief. It is a disrespectful way to treat players.

Yet, the players continue to play -- or the approximation of play that is their style -- for Trapattoni. When Keith Andrews threw himself in front of a shot late in the game in Moscow when many would be tiring and ready to collapse, he justified his place in the team which had been hard to justify until then. Andrews can play better than he did against Slovakia and Russia but, more importantly, Trapattoni doesn't care.

"If I wasn't doing what the manager wants the manager would bring somebody else in and take my spot," Whelan said in Moscow. "People talk about how the midfield is doing but it's not just me, it's everyone. If a midfielder comes in he has to do as he's told or it will be somebody else's spot, so what can I do?"

What he is told to do seems to run contrary to every accepted law of football. But it's not just the midfield. Stephen Ward suffered on Tuesday as Kevin Kilbane had before him from Trapattoni's insistence that the full-backs play almost as auxiliary centre-backs. The midfielders then play as full-backs and everyone is going backwards.

Ireland, somehow, keep moving forward. They are most likely to reach another play-off which is satisfactory but hardly cause for wild celebration given the quality in Ireland's group. If Ireland are also unseeded in the play-offs, then the clamour to present Trapattoni with a new contract seems premature.

There is no sense of urgency within the FAI to agree new terms with Trapattoni before Ireland's future is known. Trapattoni is desperate to take a team to the World Cup in Brazil but the reality is that Ireland offer him the best chance of doing that. His relationship with the FAI is excellent and the association are confident they will be able to offer a package that remains attractive to him.

For Trapattoni to remain an attractive prospect, qualification for the European Championships would be necessary. The financial realities of failure to qualify would also leak into the next campaign and in that context there is a compelling argument that change would be needed.

Whoever the next manager is, the FAI believe Denis O'Brien's commitment will remain. He offered the FAI the prospect of securing a candidate beyond their reach in 2008. This allowed them to get Trapattoni but his support is not conditional on the retention of Trapattoni and the FAI would have no reason to suspect its withdrawal. For many reasons, it makes sense for the FAI to wait. Ireland now have to win some matches. Andorra won't be easy and Armenia will be difficult.

Trapattoni will not alter his system because he sees no other way of playing Robbie Keane and he thinks it's madness to consider playing without Robbie Keane and his goals (the other nine outfield players had scored 30 goals between them).

"If you look at it, me and Kevin drop off anyway," Robbie Keane said, talking about the excitement of a new system. "If people don't see that they shouldn't be in the game or commenting on the game."

Keane will have a hectic schedule before Ireland's next game. LA Galaxy play the New York Red Bulls in New York on the Tuesday before Ireland's game. Trapattoni has no plans to force the player to miss the game. "I'll let him decide." Keane will be eager to play in a game that is the most high-profile in MLS season, even if Galaxy have already reached the play-offs. But it would mean only one training session with Ireland before the Andorra game.

Trapattoni will see Keane as essential if Ireland are to get the six points that could still see them top the group. A draw against Armenia will be enough to guarantee a play-off (assuming Ireland beat Andorra) unless Slovakia beat Russia. Slovakia won in Moscow but that is the most baffling result in a bizarre group.

It's a group Ireland could have qualified from if the manager had been bolder, but then Tuesday's result was as notable as any away result in Irish football history.

On the flight home, Trapattoni said the players opened up. They talked more than he had seen them do before, when he had viewed them as a shy group but as Ireland have gone undefeated and kept clean sheets, their confidence has grown. Trapattoni says they used this confidence to tell him they now understood."The players said we now know why you achieve the results you have in your career. There is confidence now in the psychology."

On Wednesday in Dublin, Trapattoni portrayed himself as a team-builder. They had brought players through, introduced their methods and the next step was the further integration of the young players.

Trapattoni sees James McCarthy as a classic midfielder rather than a number 10, playing behind a striker. "My dream -- my wish, is we need him in midfield, because he's young. He has energy, he can press, play simple and take ball. He need this situation."

This sounds plausible, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The implausible is always more likely with Trapattoni's Ireland. It is daring and dangerous, but not lucky. Trapattoni's approach defies football logic, but he also has men like Richard Dunne who can defy anything.

Sunday Indo Sport