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Rigid system looks ready to crumble

And so the grand, dictatorial authority shuffles into Moscow, a city that knows a thing or two about intransigent, detached leaders.

He landed there last night, harassed by the inevitable question marks about his stubborn tactics, but, more pressingly, by fresher enquiries concerning his leadership after a bizarre few days.

And all the while, whispers continue with regard to a potential extension of his contract, albeit on vastly reduced terms, when every decent Irish football fan knows that even another defeat in a play-off should mean the end of the road for Trapattoni.

Funny thing is, Trapattoni knows this too. He is presumably too proud a person to limp around in a post for which the majority of supporters feel he is unsuited; and the FAI, whose umbilical cord to its grassroots is as much political as practical, will bow to their wishes.

The FAI may appear a stouter body than of yore. But it still follows, not leads. However, such conjecture is for other days, as those who conveniently leak details of the manager's employment details know all too well. Right now, we are more concerned about what Trapattoni does not know.

Kevin Doyle has travelled, despite being declared unfit to play last Friday; Shane Long will not, despite being declared fit to play.

Doyle's character is such that he would never countenance a public declaration of his disapproval, but his honesty is such that his demeanour reveals his character just as eloquently.

And that reaction spoke of a quiet frustration, after his manager implanted a seed of gnawing, psychological doubt within one of his most honest, devoted squad members.

Furthermore, Trapattoni has had to abandon another striker in Dublin about whom it was clear the manager was more than a little baffled at the manner in which his particular injury reared up on the morning of the match.

Lest we forget, Ireland also travelled with a winger who declared himself virtually unsuitable for selection last Friday night, although the manager decided to pick him anyway.

Predictably, Aiden McGeady and Doyle both performed with underwhelming results. For a man whose keen eye for training has acquired legendary status, should we be a little more worried about this absence of the "little details," rather than his unshakeable faith in his system?

James McCarthy, too, will travel to Moscow with a purpose as yet unknown.

That all adds up to a hell of a lot of baggage to accompany what is already a trip brimming with apprehension.

For now we have a situation where Trapattoni is clearly at loggerheads with a couple of his most senior and influential players -- normally, the Italian reserves his feuds for those who are on the outside of the tent.

And so, as well as infecting his team with the negative approach that cause them to abandon freedom and self-expression, this is now combined with a worrying inability to distinguish between the (mental and physical) preparedness of key individuals.

If his faith in some of his players may have been shaken, his belief in his system remains intransigently rigid.

We ridicule Trapattoni's philosophy as being ultra-defensive; the trouble is, its very inflexibility is by now such a Jurassic approach to international football that opposition teams, from Cyprus to Russia and all points in between, can easily unpick its threads.

The sundered strands are everywhere to see. From Robbie Keane being hopelessly detached from his team-mates to the sight of the captain cluttering the midfield space in a desperate attempt to own some ball.

Or the lack of movement or interlinking across the attacking line, which simply means that if the ball does not reach either winger, any sense of attack simply flounders at birth.

Ireland's central midfield duo, conveniently labelled as "statues" by pundits, are left exposed by the threadbare nature of the formation and it is a credit to their character that they remain unbowed by recurring, personalised criticism.

The sad thing is that this team is adaptable, as anyone who has seen these players at their clubs or in Irish underage teams can testify. It is the manager who remains inflexible.

Trapattoni's system is more adept at revealing the inadequacies of his players than it is at promulgating their better qualities. Negative football would be fine were its effectiveness demonstrated on a consistent basis.

That is patently not the case with this Irish team; a year after Russia visited with a style to which Trapattoni expressed blissful ignorance before the match, and pretty much the same emotion during it, Ireland remain as porous as ever.

Just as Russia seized the initiative after sensing little offensive designs from the home team, so too did a more moderate Slovakia last Friday.

It was the same against France two years ago; then, as now, Trapattoni insists that he will not change. Then, as now, Irish supporters cling to the promise that a faint insurrection may rise among the players.

It did not in Paris, however liberated their display on that fateful night may have seemed. And it will not now. For players who strut around with almost disdainful bravado, they are easily cowed.

Trapattoni gathered his squad last week and questioned them as to recent curfew-breaking allegations; like a class of primary schoolchildren, nobody batted an eyelid or raised a murmur.

Meanwhile, Trapattoni's Italian colleague Fabio Capello finally emerges from his tactical straitjacket to liberate England; perhaps Capello is liberated by the fact that he can walk away from his £6m gig next summer.

Another Italian, Carlo Ancelotti, once recalled that he forced himself to change the identity that he placed on his teams after belatedly acknowledging the characteristics of his players.

"There is not a winning shape -- you can play 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2," he said. "There is no shape guaranteed to win. Now I look at the skills and characteristics of my players and put the right shape in the team for these players."

Ireland, though, remain imprisoned by caution on all fronts, as their spirit, and that of their supporters, becomes ever so slowly drained.

"Look at France two years ago," said Damien Duff. "Something like that would go down nicely."

We will always have Paris. Just not tomorrow night.

That Ireland merely have to match Slovakia's results to enter the purgatorial play-offs is now a mantra; do not expect the shackles to come off tomorrow night when one point could seem like priceless booty by October's end.

Trapattoni persists as the supreme authoritarian, a necessary figure after the Stan silliness.

But there are troublesome cracks appearing in his relationships with key players, as well as his football philosophy. It could be too late to seal them.

Irish Independent