Saturday 18 November 2017

Regime's chaotic preparations ensure qualification bid will be far from smooth

Once our top-quality players are missing the lack of strength is all too clear, says Richie Sadlier

HE said he was delighted and humbled to have matched the international goalscoring feats of Bobby Charlton last week. Last night, his 50th and 51st goals in an Ireland shirt put him two ahead of the great man. A truly astonishing achievement by Robbie Keane, as only 12 other European players have broken the 50-goal mark.

The starting line-up may not have been the most inspiring selection for many supporters but, with the exception of Shane Long's omission, it was the best available to Giovanni Trapattoni in my view. There are some top-quality players in the squad, but once they are missing the lack of strength is all too apparent.

This fixture has caused problems for Ireland teams of the past, and the absence of Damien Duff, Kevin Doyle and Richard Dunne suggested it may be just as problematic for this current group. The performance was by no means exemplary, but getting the win was all that mattered.

The game was decided in the opening half when we benefited from good fortune in both attack and defence. The first goal was the result of a deflection and the second came via a terrible defensive error.

Macedonia should have been given a penalty in the 24th minute, and they missed the one they were given 15 minutes later. But these are the moments which occur in every game at every level. Last night they just went in our favour.

Keane showed no signs of the injury which caused doubts over his fitness on Thursday afternoon, while Shay Given lasted the 90 minutes despite picking up a groin injury in the first half. Both were excellent and theirs was the contribution that made the difference.

Despite the hostile atmosphere of boos, jeers and lasers, the performance of this depleted team was enough to give more than a degree of hope ahead of the double-header with Slovakia and Russia in September. There were several moments of concern, particularly in defence, but this back four will never play together again if everyone is available for selection. James McCarthy may even turn up then too.

The decision to include Simon Cox from the start ahead of Long was a big call from Trapattoni given his lack of experience and concerns over Keane's groin. It was inevitable that Long would be introduced at some point. It must have been one of the most disappointing weeks of his career. Defeat in the Championship play-off final on Monday with Reading was tough enough, but he then had to listen to Trapattoni's explanation as to why he went back on the comments he made a month ago that Long and Keane would start this game. Fatigue was suggested, and his mental strength was also questioned.

I've no doubt how Long would have reacted in private to those comments, but his chance to respond on the field was always going to come. However, by the time he arrived after an hour, holding on to the lead was rightly favoured over any hopes of getting a third.

During Friday's press conference, Trapattoni explained that Stephen Kelly was selected to start the game to combat the pace of Macedonia's Bajram Fetai. He was immediately informed by the local media present that Fetai was injured and would not play any part. Surely it's not asking too much to expect our manager to be aware of that on the day before a game? Mistakes like this would have been headline news for any of his predecessors, but it's nothing out of the ordinary for Trapattoni. I've been critical of Trapattoni in the past for a lot worse, but errors like this are now a feature of the often chaotic preparations to every game.

I was in the stadium in Skopje in 1999 as a late goal ended our automatic hopes of qualification to Euro 2000. Sitting with the rest of the Under 21 squad that played the previous night, the scenes were memorable for all the wrong reasons. That campaign went down to the last few minutes of the very last game before automatic qualification was ruled out. We currently share top spot with the two teams we play next, so the return of those currently injured will be vital if we are to avoid the narrowest of failures yet again.

Automatic qualification is very much a possibility, but the upcoming trip to Russia would make the play-offs the most likely route in my view. Either way, it's going to be far from smooth under this regime.

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