Trap's away-day fortune can stop walls caving in
THE last time Ireland met Sweden, the outcome signalled a false dawn. Tonight's showdown could prompt another search for the real thing.
It may sound dramatic, but one doesn't have to read too far between the lines of recent FAI missives to know that Giovanni Trapattoni is on rocky ground if his team's World Cup prospects take a severe nosedive in Stockholm.
When the Italian was appointed to replace Steve Staunton, whose tenure began in misleading fashion with the 2006 friendly drubbing of the Swedes, his task was to bring back stability and credibility. Since the Euro 2012 nightmare and the October humiliation at the hands of Germany, he's been trying to do the same thing with his own regime.
How fitting, then, that such a decisive fixture presents the kind of challenge which Trapattoni excelled in during his first two campaigns, a tricky away game where a draw is an acceptable Irish result. He delivered it in Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Russia, although the latter was achieved through a combination of luck and Richard Dunne's brilliance.
The others were deserved, though, and reflected a durability that the Swedes have paid attention to.
"If you read the away statistics for Ireland, you can see they are a very difficult team to beat," said Swedish coach Erik Hamren, noting that Trapattoni is yet to lose a competitive qualifying game on foreign soil.
The reputation persists abroad, but the past 12 months have damaged it in Irish eyes. For this adventure, there is no Dunne and a plethora of fresh faces who offer strength in different areas to the group that narrowly missed South Africa and progressed to the Euros. Trapattoni is trying to deal with that by bringing in an old favourite, Paul Green (left), at the expense of James McCarthy, in an attempt to find balance, so full-backs Marc Wilson and, in particular Seamus Coleman, can advance into opposition territory.
Trapattioni may yet turn to McCarthy – who he suggested lacked creativity – with the news last night that Glenn Whelan is struggling to shake off the lingering effects of an ankle injury.
Green's harrying abilities will also be required to unsettle Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the Italian's reference to the England 1966 World Cup winner Nobby Stiles making it clear that, in the engine room, graft will take preference over finesse.
Ireland's cutting edge will have to come from elsewhere, with James McClean and Robbie Brady tasked not just with supplying quality deliveries, but also pressing high, thus stopping the Swedish full-backs from getting forward.
McClean will encounter dangerous Celtic star Mikael Lustig, while the hosts are considered to be weaker on the left side, with Martin Olsson unavailable and Anderlecht's Behrang Safari in line to deputise.
Perhaps that is why he has identified Brady as a key figure in the match, with the 74-year-old taking the slightly unusual step of naming the Hull man in the side and warning that he would replace him with Andy Keogh if he didn't sparkle in the training session that followed.
"I can see what he's trying to do," smiled Robbie Keane, indicating the confident youngster just needed a little shove to concentrate on the job at hand, with the talented Dubliner under orders to be conscious of his responsibilities if Coleman is caught forward.
"I want to provoke him," the Italian said. "It's a psychological matter."
Tracking Ibrahimovic will also be a mental test. Hamren confirmed his intention to deploy the PSG star in a deep role, allowing the others to do the running. It's not just up to Green to stifle his influence; Trapattoni is conscious it will be a collective effort. "We don't have a player like Ibrahimovic," he said, "but we have a good attitude, and we have to be practical."
Keane expects to spend a portion of his night covering back, in contrast to the 4-1 triumph over the Faroes where he operated as a second striker next to Jon Walters, while the athletic Shane Long will carry the attacking responsibility against a Swedish side that has leaked goals of late.
"I'm not satisfied with that," said Hamren. "We have conceded nine goals in our last three games, but they were also against three of the best teams in the world (Germany, England, Argentina).
"We're working to be a better team all the time and we're not quite there yet. Still, I'm satisfied we have scored 10 goals in those matches."
The offensive prowess means that competitive debutants Ciaran Clark and David Forde will be severely tested. Forde is a decade older, but has less top-level experience and this is a big night in his career.
Clark slotted in nicely beside John O'Shea in the victory over Poland and that convinced the Irish boss to keep the fit-again Sean St Ledger on the sidelines.
"They played the perfect game against Poland," Trapattoni said. "They showed what they can do. Ibrahimovic is a fantastic player, but (Robert) Lewandowski is also a very good player, he's not easy to play against and they managed to stop him."
Green's impact off the bench last month played him into the side and Wes Hoolahan will be hoping it has furthered his chances of a second-half involvement. On Sunday, however, Trapattoni indicated that his get-out-of-jail card could be sending Conor Sammon into the fray and taking a direct route to goal. You would like to think the Plan B is a little more sophisticated than that.
As yesterday's press conference wound down, Trapattoni delved into his favourite philosophical statements when asked if he felt under pressure. He spoke of life's three certainties: "you're born, you live, you die" and of how "a winner has 100 fathers and the loser is an orphan."
The Swedes lapped it up. "One of the most entertaining press conferences I've ever been to," exclaimed one local. Everyone else had heard it before.
Trapattoni's charm provides a huge novelty value to strangers, yet his job here is to regain the trust of the country and people who employ him. The roof over the Friends Arena will create an intense atmosphere. His mission is to deliver a performance that will prevent the walls from caving in.
Verdict: Sweden 1 Ireland 1
Sweden v Ireland, Live, RTE 2, 7.45