Friday 25 May 2018

Trap can't hide this time

No room for excuses this time around as Italian’s future rests on Irish players delivering ‘game of their lives’

David Kelly

David Kelly

"It is the game of their lives," says Giovanni Trapattoni of his Irish team ahead of this play-off.

His life in the game depends on it too.

Last month, the Italian stood atop the Cliffs of Moher in an ultimately doomed attempt to earn the iconic institution's inclusion amongst the great wonders of the world.

The next five days heralds an altogether different cliff-hanger.

Once again, Trapattoni called for cold heads and warm feet. Just as he did before the last play-off.

"In football there are the players' mistakes, the referee's mistakes," he says. Those excuses worked last time. They will not suffice this time around.

As much as he seeks to weakly deny it, Ireland are favourites. They must act accordingly.

For someone who has been almost methodical in his certainty when announcing teams to the public -- and the opposition -- Trapattoni chose a peculiar time to institute a revised policy in terms of team selection.

However, viewed through the prism of Robbie Keane's knowing grin at the pre-match press conference, it is almost certain that only the Irish camp know with any certainty who will partner the captain up front.

Still, given that Trapattoni's Ireland have faced fiercer opposition than Estonia before, it is an unusual tactic to deploy. It seems to portray a certain sense of unease, rather than complete confidence.

One would hope that certainty is prevailing. Keane clearly knows more than the rest of us, and he dropped a rather large hint when he was asked about this unprecedented conundrum.

"I've played with Simon a good few times and I know how he plays," says Keane. "I haven't played with Jon, but you could see he was a handful when he came on the last time. When you play for a long time, you get a feel. For me, we'll have to adapt quickly."

Keane's words seem to hint that he has a preference for playing alongside Cox; one that he may also have transmitted rather more directly to his manager. Walters, it appears, is to be unleashed in the game's death throes.

Trapattoni insists it is a simple matter of preference, although his impatience at persistent questioning on the issue betrays this.

His delay in confirming his choice hints at indecision though; hopefully, it will not seep into his side's quest for a vital goal or two to ferry them home in good spirits.

One of the by-products of Trapattoni's now institutionalised and relatively successful imposition of his cherished 'system' is the over-reliance on the wide men to create -- often, they have failed to do so in tandem.

In isolation, one or other of the various wing men -- Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Liam Lawrence and Stephen Hunt -- have managed to produce competent attacking displays.

But rarely have they done so as a pair. Consequently, one side of the attack is barren and hence easier to defend. And the negative impact sweeps throughout the team if the wide men cannot dovetail effectively with their attack.

Greater pressure is exerted on the midfield to attempt to create; as this is not their primary responsibility under Trapattoni, this rarely happens. And up front, Keane, predominantly, tends to drift further away from goal leaving his partner isolated, rendering the team's attacking shape null and void.

Ireland need Duff and McGeady to produce at the same time, unleashing a twin terror of wing play on a pair of Estonian full-backs who always have one eye on the counter-attack, home or away.

We expect Duff to perform. McGeady is a different case. Characteristically, he followed a decent display in Andorra -- which should have been the minimum standard -- with a pathetic night against Armenia last time out. The Estonians fear him -- he needs to show them why.

Crudity and subtlety can go hand in hand.

Talking to figures within Estonian football this week, it is obvious that they have a pre-conceived notion of how Ireland will approach tonight's game. "Pushing" has been mentioned more often than not in dispatches.

That their pre-conceived notion is a correct one should be deployed as a strength by the Irish and each line of the team has a role to fulfil in laying down crucial early physical markers.

Hence, Richard Dunne or Sean St Ledger should treat the first incursion to their territory with a gruff dismissal and as much as a flailing elbow or knee that can be tolerated within the rules.

The midfield partnership of Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan must hassle and harass their opponents and use their formidable strength to shield possession.

Up front, the emphasis will be on Walters, if he starts, to utilise his immense 6ft, 12st 6lb frame to unsettle the Estonian defence, particularly the totemic Raio Piiroja, and not be frustrated if any opening, lengthy deliveries to him are not accurate.

As he demonstrated with his breakaway goal against Chelsea last April, the moment that crystallised in Trapattoni's mind that he could have a decisive impact for Ireland should anything happen Kevin Doyle, Walters has the exact combination of robustness and refinement required for what could be a war of attrition.

One of the clear advantages of Ireland under Trapattoni's management has been the imperceptible burgeoning of the defensive shield -- this evening the triangle of Shay Given, Dunne and St Ledger will seek to maintain the security of tenure in front of Ireland's goal.

Where once Trapattoni's Ireland regularly succumbed to the fatal flaws of the 'leetel details' to which the manager remains rightly adhered, their progress in the latter part of this European qualifying campaign -- amid a seven-game spotless defensive record -- engenders confidence that the era of the soft concession is at an end.

Apart from ensuring defensive solidity, this also releases pressure from the attackers who know that once their side creates a modicum of chances, any conversion will heap the pressure on the opponents who will be encountering a resolute defence.

"Psychologically, it is very important for the team who scores first," admits Trapattoni.

Ireland's defensive display in the 0-0 draw in Moscow may have bordered on the miraculous, but there was method in the madness of the defensive durability, if not the weaknesses in front of it that caused such a flood of attacks.

Such pressure should not be replicated by the Estonians -- despite their record attempts at goal from long-range in qualifying (36) and joint-highest record of shots scored from distance (seven).

Ireland should be confident that their defence can measure up to anything that the willing, but limited, Estonian side can conjure up. Shay Given -- tonight equalling Pat Jennings' caps record -- remains a stalwart should his defence be breached.

The utter simplicity of the task awaiting Ireland is predicated upon Trapattoni's assertion that even one away goal will be "50pc of the job done" -- despite the fears of those pessimists who foresee this encounter hurtling towards the uncertainty of a penalty shoot-out after two blank scoresheets.

The ideal scenario for the Ireland team this evening is to score twice and concede none; such relative comfort, however, is an alien concept to most moderate international teams, albeit Ireland have managed to do so with surprising regularity of late (Andorra and Macedonia in this campaign).

"It is very important to score a goal," says Trapattoni.

"And we know we have the opportunity to score a goal."

And, as always, captain Keane will be central to Trapattoni's plans in tonight's encounter, however the burden needs to be shouldered from elsewhere, if not from central midfielders who are ordered not to go beyond the ball, then from the wide men, both boasting mediocre international goal- scoring records -- 10 goals between them from 136 appearances -- must chip in.

Irish Independent

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