Trap puts his trust in veteran rearguard
Dunne and O'Shea's renewed partnership at back could hold the key to Ireland success
THE narrative of Ireland's journey from the turbulence of last October to the relative optimism of this defining week has been the promotion of youth. Yet it is the reunion of two thirtysomethings that could determine the outcome of this seismic double header.
Back in 2008, when Giovanni Trapattoni swept in with a mission to stabilise a rocky ship, he identified Richard Dunne and John O'Shea as his ideal centre-half partnership.
The union lasted for five and a half qualifiers until the comeback against 10-man Italy in Bari required a reshuffle, with O'Shea dispatched to right-back because the Waterford man, then first choice in that position at Manchester United, offered superior distribution. The emergence of Sean St Ledger meant that O'Shea stayed there until the Euros, by which point it was apparent that he was no longer effective in that role.
He admitted as much himself recently. The 32-year-old is now, finally, a centre-half by trade, established in that position with both club and country and regarded highly by a pair of Italian managers, even if Paolo Di Canio was none too enamoured with his skipper's defending at Crystal Palace last weekend.
Trapattoni was forced to install O'Shea in the heart of defence when injury chopped down Dunne post-Poland.
The Tallaght man's return to life at QPR presented the veteran manager with a dilemma ahead of the showdowns with Sweden and Austria and, rather than sacrifice an old boy, he has chosen to deploy them as a duo again with the younger legs of Ciaran Clark cast aside and no temptation whatsoever to disrupt the flow of full-backs Seamus Coleman and Marc Wilson by redeploying O'Shea to the flanks again.
Dunne turns 34 in a fortnight, so it's a pairing with plenty of mileage on the clock. Then again, they are likely to encounter an experienced Swedish front pair of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (31) and Johan Elmander (32), so the battle in the Irish half is more likely to be about speed of thought rather than fleet of foot. Positional awareness will be key.
Trapattoni had hinted at using Dunne for the Aviva encounter and then taking him out of the firing line for the trip to encounter an Austrian team with sprinters in their ranks. But the man who constructed a one-man wall in Moscow two years ago tomorrow has impressed management and players this week with his physical condition; he looks a tower of strength again.
"He looks the same player now," said Darren O'Dea yesterday, Dunne's partner in Moscow, who has to take a back seat for this mission with the established names here in good health.
"Obviously, I know how tough the Championship is as a division and how physically demanding it is and he's on top of that at the minute, so he certainly has plenty more in the tank.
"It's a squad that gets you there, so everyone's delighted that he's back playing, even if it's in your own position. And, with him, I think we have a better chance of qualifying."
Trapattoni hammered home that point at the beginning of the year, but in the aftermath of the recent friendly in Wales, it appeared that he needed convincing that the 'Honey Monster' retained the same aura following a stop-start year of frustrating injury bulletins that preceded his release from Aston Villa.
A scouting trip to Bolton impressed the 74-year-old and he then studied QPR's weekend win at Leeds where he suffered only one nervous moment in another win and clean sheet. When Marco Tardelli was asked yesterday if Dunne was still a Premier League player in his eyes, the response was to the point.
"I think he will be next year because QPR for sure will go up," he said, acknowledging Harry Redknapp's recent transfer business.
Dunne did strike up a useful partnership with St Ledger where the Leicester man would generally find himself tracking the lone striker that opposing sides often deploy in tandem with a three-man midfield. Sweden are slightly different with Zlatan a unique opponent who tends to rove and it could well be that Glenn Whelan spends plenty of time in his company.
In Stockholm, Sunderland flop Tobias Hysen provided minimal support to the PSG star. Elmander, who has just linked up with Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington at Norwich, is a far better option for Erik Hamren as a second striker.
Ultimately, Trapattoni's defensive message often revolves around balance and with Coleman and, to a lesser extent, Wilson, given licence to cross the halfway line, Dunne and O'Shea will have to mind the fort with the help of Whelan.
Individually, they have been involved in hundreds of top-level games. Together, they have soldiered through some stern examinations. With their last chance of a World Cup at stake, failure is not an option.