Underdog spirit could offer Irish crucial edge
DEBATES will continue, but there is little point in calling for Giovanni Trapattoni to experiment with the rigid system that has defined his tenure in the Irish hot seat.
The reality is that Ireland are in Moscow preparing for a crucial Euro 2012 qualifier and, unless Trapattoni underwent a radical personality transformation on the four-hour flight to Domodedovo Airport yesterday, the approach will be the same as in Friday's deeply frustrating draw with Slovakia.
Ireland are capable of better in Trapattoni's favoured modus operandi and the majority of the polished displays have come on foreign soil. That's the main reason for optimism. He's brought a steely resolve that has served his team well in venues where others would be intimidated, although two enforced changes to his back-four are far from ideal. Nevertheless, there was more to be worried about in the struggle against Slovakia than the simple fact that the Italian's charges had failed to take the initiative on home soil again. Several question marks lingered over the weekend and, if Trapattoni can get the right response in those areas, then it's conceivable that his team could bounce back within the current framework. But it will require a serious turnaround from the enervating Slovakia encounter.
WHAT'S UP WITH KEVIN DOYLE?
The Wexford man's performance on Friday really was a puzzle. He was a shadow of his usual self and is in danger of losing his place for the second time in a week, with Trapattoni contemplating promoting Simon Cox into the starting line-up.
That really would be an incredible state of affairs as, for all that Cox has made a good impression in his short Irish career, Doyle is another rung or two up the football ladder. He was uncharacteristically poor against the Slovakians and Trapattoni has excused it on the basis that the Wolves striker is still recovering from the knee injury that forced him to miss the latter stages of last season.
Yet Doyle (27) disputes that assessment, stressing that he feels fine and pointing to the fact he has come through the opening games of the Premier League campaign without any problem. You would expect that Doyle was disappointed to be initially omitted for Shane Long before getting a late call. "Not ideal," was how he described it on Friday and friends of the player have indicated that it was hard to swallow.
But that disappointment has to be left behind now. If Ireland are to have any chance, they must have Doyle back to his brilliant best; take last September's powerful show in Yerevan as the perfect example of his effectiveness in the face of adversity.
In addition to a sluggish outing from Doyle, other crucial performers toiled in a match of extreme importance. John O'Shea produced his worst Irish performance in some time, which can perhaps be explained by the calf and hip strain that has ruled him out of the Moscow game.
Aiden McGeady has acknowledged that he was feeling breathless at half-time after a preparation featuring just three minutes of game-time. It reflects poorly on the management that a player in this condition was left on the pitch for 84 minutes. Even Liam Brady, a friend and supporter of Trapattoni, was baffled that the 72-year-old reckoned that McGeady was a constant threat.
Trapattoni said before the game that he expected to be making three offensive substitutes because his team would benefit from freshening up. Alas, he neglected to do so, making only two switches and waiting for too long to bring on Stephen Hunt. Ireland looked laboured, with a Slovakian team -- containing players that are less advanced into the new season -- slicker and sharper. The hope is that the exercise will have brought on McGeady, Doyle and, also, Robbie Keane, who can find another gear. O'Shea will be replaced by Kevin Foley or Stephen Kelly.
Dick Advocaat believes it is easier to play against Ireland than Macedonia, hinting at that sentiment on Friday evening after squeezing past the latter in a game where key refereeing decisions went in favour of the top seeds.
The reason is that Ireland set themselves up in a way which plays into Russian hands. Indeed, they have always done well against national teams with players from the British culture, with the Russians outnumbering in midfield and outfoxing with the flexibility and range of movement further forward. The Slovakian front four certainly found gaps on Friday too.
As much as the formation can be a factor, Ireland can try to counter it by dropping Robbie Keane deeper or tucking the wingers inside. It's about responding to the situation with clever application and increased work-rate.
Meanwhile, the Irish movement in the opposing half was limited until the dying stages against the Slovaks. The opposing back four were protected by two holding midfielders, and Ireland had little idea how to respond. Shorn of Long's pace, they had no means of stretching Vladimir Weiss' side. They still tried to punt balls into the channels rather than playing shorter. Keane's superb goal in Paris came when Ireland built the play from the back.
Kevin Kilbane, now a regular pundit on Newstalk, offered his take on Saturday when he suggested that Ireland looked to be suffering from nerves on Friday. The implication was that his colleagues had realised just what a strong position Ireland would be in with a victory, and duly fluffed their lines. There's a different kind of expectation for the Moscow test.
Instead, we're in a familiar position of underdog, with expectations lowered by a poor performance four days earlier. Previously, Ireland have thrived in those circumstances.
"We normally play better away from home," said Doyle, "I don't know why that is, but against bigger opposition we do very well. Everyone needs to be flying. Maybe if we keep it tight for the first 20 minutes, they'll get nervous."
In other words, make sure that it's the other team that freezes under the weight of the favourites' tag.
PLAN 'B' FROM THE BENCH
Okay, okay, so you have to accept that Trapattoni will be kicking off with the same system, but it is not unreasonable to expect greater flexibility from the bench. You only have to look at the recent example of Shamrock Rovers, who twice changed from their usual shape, and got the reward in both legs against Partizan Belgrade. When Ireland were three goals down against Russia at the Aviva, the bench switched to a 4-2-3-1 and got a response.
Russia are liable to mix it up during the game. They started with a 4-2-3-1 in the Macedonian game and then switched it around to go 4-4-2 in the second half. There's no point in bringing James McCarthy that far without putting him on the bench and having the option.
Leaving the communication issues aside, Trap is convinced that McCarthy is only capable of operating with the cushion of two holding midfielders. It would make Keane the likely victim if the Wigan star was to be introduced. That would be a bold substitution, but it would be preferable to going like for like if the starting XI are firing blanks.