McCarthy and Gibson must fight for right to wear green
WHEN it comes to the issue of James McCarthy, it is apparent that Giovanni Trapattoni has little room for hyperbole.
Most observers were extremely enthused by the 21-year-old's display in his team's draw with Chelsea last week; a composed, disciplined performance capped by an incisive through ball which led to Wigan's late equaliser.
Yet when McCarthy's contribution was raised with Trapattoni in Portmarnock last Monday, the Italian shot back with a question that was really more of a statement. "How many players did Wigan have in midfield?" he asked. The point was that the Glaswegian had thrived in a three-man engine room, and a system built around a lone front man, a different system to Ireland's favoured 4-4-2.
Trapattoni went on to generously praise McCarthy's efforts within that framework and added that he sent a message of congratulations, but the seeds of doubt remain when it comes to the discussion of whether the high-profile recruit from Scotland will be on the plane to Poland next June.
Today, he will be in the same premises as Darron Gibson, the player that he is probably in direct competition with, another young man who the Irish manager also judges by high standards.
For different reasons, Trapattoni wants them to show a bit more balls in 2012. In the context of McCarthy, that means being more vocal on the pitch, and demanding the ball with the conviction of a midfield general.
With respect to Gibson, it's about making a statement of intent by walking out of Old Trafford and furthering his education at a club that will give him game-time and allow him to grow, even if the sacrifice is leaving a comfortable life in Manchester behind.
His stock has fallen at Old Trafford in the last 12 months, with Alex Ferguson's central midfield injury crisis the only reason that the Derry native has managed to get into the match-day squad again.
The indications are that he will move in the new year, and perhaps get a taste of the Premier League experience that McCarthy has grown accustomed to. Today's Old Trafford encounter will provide another big test for the Wigan man, who has overcome an injury-blighted start to the new campaign to cement his place in Roberto Martinez's side.
When Trapattoni bemoans Gibson's refusal to leave the Manchester United shadows, his point is that, at club level, he generally only features in games where his team are lording it from a position of authority; a vastly different experience to representing Ireland against decent opposition.
Effectively, the Irish boss is suggesting that he is softer than the established options when it comes to the business of battle.
He is starting to talk about McCarthy in slightly different terms. Leaving aside the communication issue and the protracted saga that accompanied it, from a football point of view, the manager has always seemed sceptical about where he can fit in.
The initial feeling was that he could only play as a No 10, a creative influence behind a solitary striker. He auditioned in that role in March, the only game that Trapattoni has started with a revised system. In that friendly with Uruguay, the talented youngster failed to make a real impression.
The dugout felt that he was slow to get on the ball, perhaps a little bit nervous for an occasion where a large amount of the focus was on his efforts. From his comments last week, it is clear the 72-year-old feels that a person who is quite shy off the field is similarly behaved on it. Considering that playing in the hole requires someone with serious presence, Trapattoni is unconvinced that McCarthy could step up to that role just yet.
But that would suggest that it's the position that he is best suited to. Martinez obviously thinks differently. Within his system, McCarthy operates deeper in a three-man central midfield, with the underrated Mohamed Diame for support and Dave Jones in the more advanced role.
Jones is by no means a creative force. The Spaniard just feels that the Irish international has the maturity to influence things from in front of the back four, while being mindful of his defensive responsibilities.
That's no great surprise really, considering his education. At his first club, Hamilton, he was schooled in the physical world of the Scottish First Division before a jump to the SPL, where they were the underdogs.
He always had a certain toughness, and he has improved physically in the past 18 months, a natural process with his age and also a lay-off with an ankle injury that upped his gym work.
Trapattoni appears to have altered his view on McCarthy somewhat, acknowledging that he could well be capable of slotting in to a two-man midfield where Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews work to instruction.
It took the Irish boss a while to accept that Keith Fahey had the attributes to slot in there, but the Dubliner is now the established third choice and was brought on as a calming presence in the final stages of crucial qualifiers.
He has skipped ahead of Gibson, and the selection of McCarthy on the bench for the second leg against Estonia hinted at a change in the pecking order. Trapattoni agreed that the Wigan player has the potential to find another 30pc in the next six months, so a testing examination against the champions today should accelerate the process.
The Irish management will be watching with interest and so, too, should Gibson.