'Victory our only option' - trap
Irish boss insists he won't play for draw despite absence of marquee names
WHEN it rains in Macedonia, it pours. Given the nature of Ireland's build-up to this crucial Euro 2012 qualifier, Giovanni Trapattoni can empathise with those conditions.
The 72-year-old is a religious man, but few of his prayers have been answered ahead of this visit to the birthplace of Mother Teresa.
Ask Trapattoni about the main obstacle between Ireland and success, and he will always cite the fear of injuries. With a relatively small pool of marquee names, he thinks it is a big ask for his charges to enter key games without them.
So, after losing Richard Dunne to suspension, and Damien Duff and Kevin Doyle to injury, the last thing Trapattoni wanted to see on the eve of the match was his skipper, Robbie Keane, spending parts of the training session working away from the rest of the group in a battle to prove his fitness. The good news is that he later joined in with the main business of the preparations and felt well afterwards.
Keane had declared himself fit in the press conference beforehand and stated he would take a painkilling injection to play if required. Expect him to lead the team out. But it's a doubt that Trapattoni could do without.
He doesn't like to alter his team dramatically from game to game. However, just five of the XI that scored a victory over the Macedonians in Dublin in March will start at the renovated King Philip II stadium.
They are Aiden McGeady, Kevin Kilbane, Glenn Whelan, Darren O'Dea and Keane. The last pair have question marks hanging over their fitness. Of course, the return of Shay Given and the availability of Keith Andrews is a bonus to Trapattoni.
In other areas, though, there is less certainty about the experience of his chosen performers.
The selection of Simon Cox is the major talking point. Circumstance gave him an Irish debut last week when a raft of striking withdrawals effectively left management with no other option.
A goal against Northern Ireland was followed by a decent showing in the win over Scotland, a fine start to Irish life for the 24-year-old West Brom frontman.
Trapattoni had a very obvious alternative available this week, after Shane Long joined up with the camp after Reading's bitterly disappointing play-off final loss to Swansea. When the squad was named at the start of the month, the Irish boss declared that Long would deputise for Doyle.
Considering that the Tipp lad's last showing for his country was a remarkable display in the friendly with Uruguay, it was thought to be a formality.
Cox, who left his hometown club Reading partly because he couldn't skip ahead of Long in the queue, is suddenly the flavour of the month.
Doyle sustained his knee problem in the March meeting between the sides, and it was Long who appeared as a 20th-minute substitute. It wasn't one of his better nights, with the physical Macedonian defence holding their own.
Trapattoni seems to think that Cox, who he regards as a "clever player," can hold the ball up and bring others into a game where Ireland will be under pressure for spells. There seemed to be a comparison to Kevin Doyle, although the Wolves star is a sturdier character who is far more competent in the air than the new boy.
Keane acknowledged that Ireland will have to take a more subtle approach than, say, Yerevan last September, where the out ball was a punt in the direction of Doyle whose strong running provided a valuable service.
"If you look at myself and Cox, we're not the biggest of players," stressed Keane. "We'll probably have to get it into feet rather than chipping the ball into us. We'll have to get down and play, and get it behind them.
"In a way, we're quite similar. He drops off. It's important that one of us, in certain stages of the game, does that because it will be difficult for 90 minutes and we'll need to support the midfield. We can chop and change who does that."
Trapattoni sometimes struggles to articulate himself in pre-match press conferences away from home, where a local presence, the associated need for added translation, and a posse of intrusive photographers, make for a slightly frenzied environment.
It didn't help that a ferocious downpour had pushed the starting time back closer to the beginning of training, so it wasn't a day for long, detailed answers. The suggestion was that he felt that Long was perhaps a little fatigued after an arduous campaign.
"I decided because he play many games," said Trapattoni, in an apparent reference to Long. "Cox is a different player. I think he can play the same as Robbie."
The Irish approach will be interesting. With no target man, per se, a lot of the creative onus may well be on the wingers, Stephen Hunt and Aiden McGeady. Shorn of Duff, Spartak Moscow star McGeady, who broke his international duck in the first fixture, will be expected to get on the ball and peg the Macedonians back.
"He's a great player to have in the team," observed Keane, with respect to McGeady. "Because you can give him the ball and he'll hold onto it for a long period of time. Ability wise, he's incredible, and himself and Hunty will give their defenders a hard time."
With Sean St Ledger short of 100pc fitness, O'Dea will be the apprentice in the centre-half partnership with John O'Shea. In the nicest way possible, Trapattoni suggested that the Celtic man is not the prettiest of defenders.
"The beautiful, elegant defenders sometimes concede a goal," he said, "Darren is a strong player, with a good personality."
Pace was the main reason why Fulham's Stephen Kelly pipped Paul McShane and Kevin Foley to the vacancy at right-back left by O'Shea's relocation.
There was a curious moment when Trapattoni indicated that Kelly could neuter the threat posed by Macedonia's Lyngby attacker, Bajram Fetai, who has just broken into their senior team. The local translator interjected to say that Fetai was injured. Trapattoni wasn't expecting that information.
Still, there have been times in the past fortnight when he didn't even know if starting members of his own team were going to show up. In that context, confusion about the opposition line-up pales into insignificance.
He was bullish about the chances of Irish success in March and contested the notion that he would settle for a draw here. "Maybe Marco (Tardelli) said that, but not me," he said. "I am diplomatic because I have respect for my opponent, but when I go on the pitch my aim is to win."
After the chaotic nature of the preparations, taking three points would represent a considerable achievement.
If Ireland can show patience in the conditions and remember the Macedonian weaknesses that were exposed two months ago, they are capable of pulling it off.
Verdict: Macedonia 1 Ireland 2