Sport Soccer

Thursday 18 January 2018

Time we opened our eyes to folly of blind faith

Giovanni Trapattoni will start with Robbie Keane but it's the wrong call, writes Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

It's all going exactly to plan so far. Ireland are where they were always going to be at this stage of the group: six points from the opening three fixtures. Defeat to Germany was as predictable as the victories over Kazakhstan and the Faroes, so it is tempting to say things are as good as could be expected.

But it could be better in so many ways and that is very obvious. The arguments have been made on these pages before so there is no need to repeat them, but nine months on from the Euros and one issue is surprisingly still unresolved: the merits of persisting with Robbie Keane.

There are un-droppable players in every team, everyone accepts that. Either because of their own strengths or the comparative weakness of the alternatives, certain players just have to play when available. Keane has always been seen as one of those for Ireland and it seems that this how Trapattoni views him today.

There was a time when discussing our attacking options was limited to choosing a partner for Keane but those days are long gone and the case for excluding him is pretty conclusive. His form during the Euros and in every game since then suggests it is time for Ireland to move on without him. I'm just surprised this is still an issue.

Ireland will play with two strikers in Sweden because there is no other way of accommodating Keane in the side. He cannot play as a lone front man and does not have the discipline or the know-how to play in midfield.

Playing him ahead of Wes Hoolahan in a deep-sitting role between midfield and attack would be indefensible. Playing any system other than 4-4-2 would expose his limitations or mean dropping him, something Trapattoni seems unwilling to consider. When he is fit and available, he plays. When he plays, it has to be 4-4-2. And when Ireland play that system with Trapattoni's directions, the gap to superior sides is always widened.

It is still unclear exactly what role Simon Cox was given against Spain in the Euros (Cox himself couldn't clarify it even after the game) but Keane was in the more advanced role of the two. It did not work in any way, predictably, but neither did any other aspect of what Ireland did that night. Putting the performance and the defeat down to how Keane was utilised would be ridiculous, but it showed the manager's eagerness to include him in the starting line-up. He has neither the strength, height nor the pace to lead the line on his own, and should not have been considered for that role. It's an outdated argument.

So what of the alternatives? Both Jonathan Walters and Shane Long could play in attack on their own and Hoolahan has shown in the limited time he has been given that he has everything required to play international football. He has been performing in his position at a consistently high level for some time now in the Premier League. Walters was used up front on his own against Germany and showed in the opening 20 minutes how suited to the role he is, making Keane's unavailability through injury a stroke of good fortune at the time.

You'd wonder how poorer the performance would have been had Keane been deployed in that position.

When the draw was first made, I thought these games with Sweden and Austria would be the first real opportunity to gauge what had been learned from the Euros or what progress had been made. Unfortunately, this campaign has been a continuation of what we saw in the summer and there is no reason to expect anything new in the next ten days.

There have been no signs of progress off the field either. Since his handling of the Stephen Kelly affair, Trapattoni is more isolated than he's ever been in the job.

That Sweden will probably play the same system is irrelevant. Keane will play up front in place of Premier League regulars and the team won't be able to keep the ball.

He has probably become more important to Trapattoni since Duff's retirement and Dunne's injury, but the Italian is one of the few who still see a place for Keane.

Players of his experience are invaluable in any squad, particularly one with inexperienced younger members, but he is no longer worthy of a place in the starting line-up.

If the result leaves Ireland fourth in the group ahead of the Austria game, the conversation will probably focus on the brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or the absence of Dunne. Just as it was last summer when people pointed out that two of Ireland's opponents reached the final, the real point will be missed entirely.

rsadlier@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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