Striking dilemma for Trap as Keane ruled out
ON a windy morning in Malahide, Giovanni Trapattoni's calm demeanour contrasted with the conditions.
Within a couple of hours, however, he would receive news that has added a degree of turbulence to preparations for tomorrow's pivotal Group C encounter with Austria.
After giving the impression that he would only tinker with the formula that delivered a draw in Sweden on Friday, word filtered back that his captain, Robbie Keane, would miss the game with the calf strain he sustained in Stockholm. When he spoke after training, the Irish boss seemed content that the country's record goalscorer would shake it off in time. A scan said otherwise.
His decision to bring back Glenn Whelan in place of Paul Green is close to a like-for-like switch, while a choice between injury doubt Jon Walters and skilful youngster Robbie Brady would have some impact on the shape of his team.
But it is nothing compared to the unavailability of Keane, who didn't have his best game in the final third against the Swedes, yet contributed significantly in other departments, during the first half in particular.
Notwithstanding Trapattoni's belief that his striker's fame worries opposition and encourages his colleagues, the Tallaght man is quite a unique operator and the choice of a deputy poses an unwelcome headache. The manager has six alternatives to choose from, each with different attributes.
The hot favourite. "Sammon is to be with Long," said Trapattoni yesterday when he was speaking in theory about who would replace Keane if he missed out. He was confident about his talisman's fitness at that juncture though, so we will find out today if his hypothetical answer becomes a reality.
Sammon has taken a prominent place in the 74-year-old's affections and, while the response to his debut performance against Poland last month was mixed, Trapattoni was happy with the player's energy and work rate.
He didn't have enough time to make an impact in the scoreless draw in Sweden, so it would be a major gamble to throw him in for a game of this nature, especially as he is a drastically different operator to Keane.
Long's role on Friday was clearly defined and with Sammon is also an aerial outlet – albeit one who is arguably better with his feet – selecting the UCD graduate will inevitably alter the home side's approach.
He was the second name to be mentioned by Trapattoni yesterday and, in the build-up to Euro 2012, Trapattoni consistently stressed that Cox was the most similar player to Keane that he had in the squad.
Indeed, when it came to the finals, the Nottingham Forest man was pitched into the 'No 10' role against Spain, with Keane becoming the forward-most striker – a gamble that misfired badly.
Cox did impress in a similar arrangement in Macedonia and is a very capable front player. His reputation has perhaps been damaged by some unsuccessful stints in a wide role earlier in this campaign; he struggled in both Kazakhstan and against Germany when included on the left side of midfield, although he was more effective off the bench on the right against a weaker opponent in the form of the Faroe Islands. He would relish an outing in his favoured position.
Considering he stepped in for Keane on Friday, the initial social media reaction when the Keane news emerged was that the Norwich trickster would make an overdue first start for his country. Alas, he did not get a mention from Trapattoni as he ruminated over the situation, and it may be the case that he has to wait in reserve again.
Before last month's friendly against Poland, Trapattoni was expected to start the ex-Shels star but explained that his preference would be to start the game with two strikers in order to press higher up the field. Sammon and Long were tasked with the challenge of defending from the front.
Ireland kept the ball better when Hoolahan was introduced to support the midfield, but it appears that while Trapattoni now views the Dubliner as legitimate Plan B, he has a way to go before he becomes a part of the Plan A. If Trapattoni changed his mind overnight, you sense that the public would approve, but it would represent a significant about-turn.
Both Paul Green and Andy Keogh know that it's possible to miss out on the original squad and then suddenly become a major contender for involvement. Doyle was sore at the manner in which he was informed of his exclusion from the final panel, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he could come into contention at some stage in the 90 minutes. After all, he did make a strong impact off the bench in Kazakhstan and also enjoys playing alongside Long, his old buddy from Cork City and Reading.
In a recent interview, Long offered the view that they could become a potent strikeforce and bemoaned their lack of opportunities together. Certainly, they clicked extremely well in the friendly drubbing of Oman last September, although the opposition were admittedly very poor. Doyle's strong running and hold-up play have always endeared himself to managers, but Trapattoni feels that Sammon can cause more damage right now.
The versatile Stoke performer put in a solid shift in Stockholm, and the exertions obviously took their toll as he is struggling with a back injury. After Whelan was sidelined, Trapattoni called on his seniority as a foil for the overlapping Seamus Coleman but, while Walters has demonstrated his aptitude for a wide role, he belongs in a central position, often being most effective for Stoke as a bridge between midfield and a more advanced poacher. But he is hardly a mirror image of Keane.
Walters was deployed as a striker for the first three games of this campaign and did reasonably well in the Germany and Faroe Islands double header. In the past, he has linked well with Long, with their stand out display coming in the second half of the pre-Euro 2012 friendly with Bosnia.
Giovanni Trapattoni was discussing the emergence of his attacking full-backs Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson yesterday, comparing them to Marco Tardelli and Antonio Cabrini, who provided goals from that department in his great Juventus team of the early 1980s. "Who is your Claudio Gentile?" asked one hack, with a nod to the aggressive centre-half. "Keogh!" joked Tardelli, from the back of the room.
The Irish camp respect the Millwall attacker's ability to defend from the front, although he was strongly rebuked by Keane for recklessly giving away the free-kick on Friday that led to David Forde's injury-time save.
Trapattoni feels that Keogh is effective as a central striker when the opposition playmaker operates from deep, citing the job he did on Andrea Pirlo in a 2011 friendly. Austria lack a player in that mould, so Keogh is the outsider here. But it wouldn't be a surprise if he was introduced if the hosts have a lead to protect. The identity of Keane's replacement is likely to determine if they can reach that position of strength.