Saturday 24 February 2018

Trap goes for power in search of glory

Damien Duff chips a pass over Andy Keogh in
training yesterday
Damien Duff chips a pass over Andy Keogh in training yesterday
Gionvanni Trapattoni speaks to the press yesterday


THIS really is massive. The hyperbole is not misplaced.

It's simple. Lose, and it's the end for Giovanni Trapattoni. Senior players could follow. And, in a volatile financial environment, the implications could be grave for the Irish football community.

The FAI desperately need the boost of qualifying for a play-off, never mind the significant injection of cash that would come with making a major tournament. Ultimately, they have to justify the substantial investment in this regime. It would be an expensive failure to end a four-year cycle with nothing to show for it.

But this is about more than domestic pains. The money talk is irrelevant to the portion of the Irish population who have lost interest in their footballers for a combination of features. The boost from a summer in Poland & Ukraine would shine a light on this team again, and brighten the country in the process.

It's up to Trapattoni to flick the switch.

The players will cross the white line, but it's fitting that a key element of the game that could decide the manager's future is personnel selection that is typical of his tenure.

Simon Cox ahead of Shane Long? Considering the former is a benchwarmer at West Brom while the latter is top dog, then it seems an unfathomable decision at first glance. This is Trapattoni's world, though, where the system is king. And, with Robbie Keane confirming the seriousness of his injury by taking to the stage in a Malahide pub on Sunday evening, the Italian wanted to find a piece to fit into his jigsaw.

Cox can drop deep and support the midfield. He links the play well. Long is most effective spinning off the last man, with a combination of pace and power that can cause headaches for the opposition.

Alas, Trapattoni wants Kevin Doyle furthest forward, believing that his aerial presence can unsettle the Armenians, just as he did in Yerevan last September.

So, a month after getting the nod ahead of Doyle for the showdown with Slovakia, Long drops behind Cox. The first entry on the teamsheet is the formation.

"Only the result will show if it is the right choice," said Trapattoni, acknowledging that his neck was on the chopping block. "After the game, I can clarify everything to you. Cox is similar to Keane. Long is another type of player. For the counter attacks, he can break quickly. Cox can drop back to support the midfield, and I couldn't ask Doyle to do this."

Instead, Long will be cast in the role of impact sub, with Trapattoni thinking that Armenia, for whom only a win will do, shall be piling men forward in numbers as the game progresses.

"He could be very important in the second half," the manager stressed.

It hints at another intriguing element of this encounter. With the 72-year-old famed for his conservatism, he enters the concluding game of the campaign proper requiring only a draw to book a play-off.

He has acknowledged the inherent danger in going out with a mindset that only a point will do. Yet, so often, it appears as though his team are operating in that manner.

Contrary to perception, his team always start with a determination to win.

In the past three years, Irish teams have frequently provided an early goal. The problem is retaining the intensity, and falling into worryingly familiar habits if half-time passes with parity in place. Suddenly, avoiding a loss seems to be the priority.

The question lingers. How will the bench respond as the chequered flag looms? Trapattoni was in bullish form yesterday, speaking politely about how much this Armenian team have improved, but hinting that his team are capable of removing the tension from the occasion.

The youthful visitors arrive in Dublin as the form team of the group, with eight more goals to show from their nine games than Ireland do.

Nevertheless, the hosts' wily old manager clearly believes that, on and off the park, experience will win the day.

"I am confident," he said. "At the start of qualifying, I thought Armenia were a little less strong than Slovakia but they have grown and I think we have to have respect for this team. But I asked the team this morning to start the game like they did in Andorra. In Andorra, we could have scored three or four goals in the first 10-15 minutes. It's important to think about this, because I think they (Armenia) will think about us and our quality. I am confident about our result."

The early approach in Andorra was extremely direct, and the same will apply here. Doyle will be the focal point. Physically, Ireland should have the edge. Speed is a different matter.

Ireland do have dexterous performers capable of causing difficulty. Aiden McGeady has improved throughout this campaign, and Damien Duff has thrived at the Aviva Stadium when others have frozen.

Nevertheless, the wingers have a dual function of supporting the full-backs. Trapattoni plans to deploy Stephen Kelly at left-back, with John O'Shea on the right when many expected the opposite to be the case. The roving playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan will drift onto their radar, although it will primarily be up to Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan to stem the flow of Armenian possession.

In short, the key will be an old -fashioned unfriendly welcome. Opposition teams have gained far too much enjoyment from their trips to the renovated Lansdowne Road.

Trapattoni's men are used to dealing with a demanding environment. On the flip side, Armenia have the hand of history on their shoulders. This is the first time they've ever flirted with qualification and, while the travelling support in the stadium will be miniscule, the players know what it means to everyone back in Yerevan and beyond. Allowing the rookies to get into their stride would be a fatal error.

It is said that a young team has the advantage of being able to play without fear but, in the past, Irish teams knew how to make their guests afraid. The approach will reflect the tone set by the manager, and Trapattoni accepts the scrutiny.

"That is the same for every game," he said. "For the manager, it is a test."

With a purposeful start, the hosts can delay the final examination for another month.

Verdict: Ireland 2 Armenia 1

Irish Independent

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