Monday 20 January 2020

Stokes set to step in if Keane loses fitness race

Ireland captain Robbie Keane in pensive mood alongside equipment officer Mick Lawlor after missing training last night
Ireland captain Robbie Keane in pensive mood alongside equipment officer Mick Lawlor after missing training last night

Vincent Hogan in Cologne

Robbie Keane faces an early morning fitness test to decide if he can lead Ireland into tonight's seemingly thankless World Cup qualifier against Germany.

The Irish captain sat out last night's final training session at the Rhein Energie Stadium, where caretaker boss Noel King revealed that he was still undecided on his starting line-up for a forbidding test against the runaway Group C leaders.

Keane took "a little kick" on his ankle before the squad left Dublin and it is known that his club, LA Galaxy, requested his release from next Tuesday's final qualifier against Kazakhstan as they play the following day. That request was turned down, with King insisting "there's no question of him going home".

If Keane does not play tonight, Celtic's Anthony Stokes (above) is favourite to lead the Irish line in what is expected to be a nominal 4-5-1 formation.

King was accompanied to last night's press conference by Damien Delaney, who is set to partner Ciaran Clark in the centre of Ireland's defence. It will be a competitive international debut for the 32-year-old Crystal Palace player, who is a former Cork minor footballer.

The players will be told the team this morning and King admitted that the loss of Keane would represent a psychological blow to a side already denied the leadership qualities of John O'Shea and Richard Dunne.

"He's been one of our leading lights over the years, one of the biggest scorers in Europe," he said of the Irish captain. "If he doesn't make it, nobody will be happy about that, that's for sure. But we'll get on with it, there's nothing we can do about it."

While naming Stokes, Shane Long and Kevin Doyle as potential replacements, King spoke particularly glowingly of Stokes' versatility, praising the defensive side of his recent performance for Celtic against Barcelona in the Champions League, a possible pointer to the circumstances expected to prevail for Ireland by the Rhein this evening.

"I have a fair idea of the team," said King. "I probably have about 10 right and I'm just working on one in my own mind. Then obviously I have to see how Robbie's situation works out as well."

He refused to be drawn on German coach Joachim Loew's, suggestion that Ireland had only one way of playing, irrespective of the manager in charge.

"That's his view, I can't tell him what to think," said King. "If that's his view, I respect that. He's a very successful manager. It's not my view."

King had 12 members of his family arriving in from Maastricht last night and admitted "it'd be un-natural for me not to be nervous" ahead of the most daunting of managerial debuts.

"I have confidence in my players playing the way we're planning to play," said King. "I'm optimistic that we can do that. And if that's the case and things work out... we'll see.

"But we're aware of the Germans, we're aware of the onslaught we may face. So we need to be fully concentrated.

"Whether we have the ability of the Germans doesn't really matter. It's what we do with our ability and how we work together. But you have to set your stall out to try and win."

Irish Independent

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