Walters thrown in at deep end
IT was billed as the big issue of the week, but Giovanni Trapattoni appears to be clear on the identity of his strikeforce for the first leg of the Euro 2012 play-off, with Robbie Keane and Jonathan Walters in line to start against Estonia on Friday.
Keane's return to fitness was capped by a goal in Sunday's win over Real Salt Lake, which booked LA Galaxy's place in the MLS Cup final.
Walters' ability to offer a similar service to Kevin Doyle has made him the intended partner for the Irish captain. Doyle is suspended for the Tallinn encounter.
With Shane Long out of both games and Leon Best missing the first leg after his wife gave birth, the loser is set to be Simon Cox, the Man of the Match in last month's win over Armenia.
Ultimately, Trapattoni feels Cox is too similar to Keane, while indicating that the West Brom frontman should figure at some stage, given that his skipper is still on the comeback trail and may not be able to play all 180 minutes.
Walters is one of the form Irish players in the Premier League and, given Estonia's physicality at the back, Trapattoni feels that the Stoke man is capable of competing in that department and holding the ball up to bring others into play.
"Cox is a little bit the same as Robbie," explained Trapattoni. "Walters is another type -- he's not like Doyle, but the position is maybe similar.
"Their defenders are big and strong. Maybe we need to attack the ball. Cox is different. But Walters, he can give the ball, he can defend the ball, and we can go up the pitch. That is a change."
The Irish manager dismissed the suggestion that he might overlook Walters because he is yet to start a competitive game for his country.
"Walters has played with us before," he said. "And it is about the characteristics of the players. In the last game, he came on and played well in this position."
Keane's recovery has heartened Trapattoni after a troubled couple of weeks, when he lost Long for both games and John O'Shea for at least the first leg.
Certainly, the Tallaght man was lively for his new employers on Sunday evening, producing a fine individual strike in the second half after a quick break, although he did squander some other clear-cut opportunities.
Trapattoni was in bed in the early hours of Monday morning when Keane was in action, but Marco Tardelli had an eye on proceedings and the bulletin was positive.
In reality, management were always going to throw Keane in from the outset on Friday once he made it because of his experience, yet there is a genuine feeling that the 31-year-old is in better condition than they anticipated he might be.
"I'm not that surprised that Robbie is back this quickly as it wasn't a bad injury, thank God. It probably wasn't that dangerous," said Trapattoni of the adductor muscle problem that flared up in last month's win over Andorra.
"It's a relief that he is back because Shane Long is missing. Robbie is important. For an important game like this, you need players with great personality and international mentality. Robbie is not only our captain, but he plays in the international team for these reasons."
Keane, who was due to arrive in Dublin in the early hours of this morning, is thrilled to be arriving for duty.
"I'm just happy to be fit," he said. "When it first happened they said four to six weeks and that really would have put me out. We haven't qualified for the European Championships for the last 20 years or so -- it's going to be a big occasion."
Certainly, there was a giddy sense of anticipation around Malahide yesterday as the players gathered. Trapattoni acknowledged that Ireland were on the brink of a huge achievement, yet he was determined to caution against the perils of complacency.
At one point, he removed a piece of paper from his pocket that was trumpeted as containing the message of the week.
"Don't jump the gun," he explained.
The Italian reached into his vocabulary of sayings, pulling out one of his old classics about not talking about a cat until it's in the sack. Then, an old error of referring to wingers as 'swingers' was repeated, with much hilarity ensuing as the double entendre was explained.
"Interesting," he mused.
But when the joviality was left aside, there was a familarity to the buzz-words. Trapattoni is keen to challenge the assertion that Ireland are favourites, asking his audience why his charges should be deemed superior to the Estonians.
There's an obvious contradiction, as when the veteran is talking about his desire for a new contract, he stresses the progress his team have made under his stewardship and the ascent up the world rankings. Yet Estonia's lowly seeding and ranking are dismissed as a reason for confidence.
"We should not underestimate the opponent, because they are mentally strong to have reached this situation," he said. "We need to play like we did in the last two games against Armenia and Andorra, with 100pc attention."
Nevertheless, he is aware of the expectations. "This is our second chance to qualify," he enthused. "And I can smell it."