Long night in store for fans at Aviva Stadium on Wednesday

by James Clancy
The Republic of Ireland face Greece in an international friendly at Lansdowne Road on Wednesday for what must be one of the most unattractive fixtures ever to take place at the venue – and certainly of the stadium’s two-and-a-half year incarnation as the  “AVIVA.”

In spite of the 1-4 World Cup qualifying win in Tórshavn over the Faroe Islands some three weeks ago, the Republic of Ireland’s senior international footballing set up is, quite frankly, a mess.

The win in the Faroes was of course preceded by the 1-6 home hammering at the hands of what has to be said is a wonderfully talented German side.  The ineptitude of the Irish performance that night in Dublin however meant that Die Mannschaft were made to look considerably better than what they are.

The latter point was graphically illustrated by the fact that the Germans were held 4-4 by Sweden in their next qualifier in Berlin four days after they hit Ireland for six.  It should be stated however that the Germans were 4-0 ahead early in the second-half and unquestionably took their foot off the pedal.  The Swedes though are, while a solid outfit, certainly no world beaters and they should never have been allowed to overturn that four goal deficit.

The four days between Ireland’s hammering by the Germans and the win in the Faroes last month were spent with the majority questioning how many days Giovanni Trapattoni had left as Irish manager.  The consensus was that it would be less than seven.  A couple of high ranking FAI ‘sources’ stated that an Extraordinary Board Meeting was to be called when the Irish squad returned from the Faroes and that Trapattoni’s departure would be confirmed at that meeting.

The Boys in Green were to go on to win in the Faroe Islands and following a Board Meeting the following night, the FAI stated publicly that Trapattoni would in fact be staying as manager!  The governing body made a statement outlining the fact that they would continue to monitor the Italian’s progress and that changes would be made.  The governing body would not comment on whether finances (and the fact that they couldn’t afford to pay off Trapattoni’s lucrative contract) mitigated against Trapattoni being removed from his job.

Trapattoni met with FAI chief executive John Delaney a week after the board meeting and it was decided that the 73 year-old should  “Try to attend more club matches to watch players.”  The Italian would go on to attend Premier League matches in England over the following two weekends.

The notion that little has or will change was resurrected last week however at Trapattoni’s announcement of his squad for the friendly against the Greeks on 14th November.  West Brom star Shane Long was omitted from the party, with Trapattoni citing a “hamstring injury” as being the reasoning behind the Tipperary native’s absence.  Long has been in the form of his life this season for the Baggies and went on to rip the Southampton defence to shreds on Monday night, creating both goals in a 2-0 win, with no hint of injury whatsoever.

Trapattoni finally saw sense and (in a similar action to his introduction of James McClean to international football at the start of this year), the former Juventus boss bowed to public pressure and has now included Long in his squad to play Greece.  Ghosts of the multiple previous errors of communication that have haunted the Italian’s reign as Irish boss come springing to mind.

Shane Long (similar to McClean) is 25 years-old and playing at the peak of his powers.  His pace, power, precision and hunger are  just what is required to be successful at international level and yet he has been consistently misused – or usually totally ignored – by the Irish management.  Trapattoni needs to forget the petty squabbles over whether Long has been injured or not and look at how much better Ireland would be with him in the starting lineup – and not just the squad.  The one and only thing preventing Long from leading the Irish line is Trapattoni’s stubbornness as well as his myopic refusal to drop Robbie Keane to the bench.  The nation’s leading scorer has been a terrific servant, but he shouldn’t be starting at international level any more.

The statistics to back Long’s case are compelling.  Long has scored five goals and contributed four assists for West Brom in the Premier League this season. That’s more than Jonathan Walters, Kevin Doyle and Simon Cox – the latter two of whom are playing in a division below Long.  Judging performances on numbers alone never tells the full story however and it is this which makes Long’s all the stronger.  The work he does off the ball has played a huge role in his club rising to fifth in the top flight and it seems that everyone except Trapattoni is aware of that.

Against the best countries, Ireland need a forward who can set up team-mates as well as chipping in with the occasional goal himself.  Long is certainly more than capable of doing that, as he did on Monday night with a fantastic cross for Peter Odemwingie to score the Baggies‘ second goal against the Saints.

Long has supplied more assists this season than Luis Suarez, Dimitar Berbatov and Jermain Defoe.  When he is not supplying pin point passes to team-mates, he is usually on the end of passes which he generally finishes and has no idea what the phrase “a lost cause” means.

The intelligence of Long’s movement is probably his greatest attribute however.  Whether it is by dragging defenders out of position or sneaking into their blind side, Long is always on the move.  Crucially, he can link play with his crisp passing and sublime first touch something which will always give his team a head start on a counter attack, which is exactly how Ireland play against any opposition of a similar or higher standard to them.

Long is also most adept at linking play and is brilliant at trapping the ball.  Long’s ability to link midfield to attack is something which he  is far superior at than any other attacker Trapattoni has at his disposal.  A combination of Long up front on his own with Hoolahan just behind him, would be well worth seeing, but whether Trapattoni employs that option is a long shot at best.  A midfield of Gibson and McCarthy with McClean and Coleman on the wings would also be a good option for Trapattoni, but whether he uses that formation is another question.

The 2004 European Champions are a nation very similar to Ireland.  The small Meditteranean nation’s population is one experiencing similar economic woes to us and it is a nation that has regularly competed well above its weight at international football level.  Their style of football is also very similar to that ‘played’ by the  Boys in Green under Giovanni Trapattoni.

Greece won the second European Championship of the new century by employing a typical flat 4-4-2 formation, which relied heavily on counter attack and set pieces – a style very similar to that employed by Giovanni Trapattoni with great success during the 1980s.  Since the 2010 World Cup, the Greeks have been managed by Fernando Santos.  Santos, similar to the previous incumbent, Otto Rehhagal was a defender and the new man in charge, also went about building from the back.   Under Santos the Greeks immediately went to work on an unprecedented streak of success, setting an national record by going unbeaten throughout the Portuguese natives’ first 17 matches in charge.  They continued as one of the few international sides – along with the Republic of Ireland – to employ a fundamentally traditional 4-4-2 formation.

While Greece’s proficiency in stifling opposition attacks seemed to wane toward the end of Rehhagel’s tenure, the emergence of Santos seemed to galvanize Greek defending once more. Through seven international friendlies and ten Euro 2012 qualifiers, the Greeks kept nine clean sheets and conceded just one goal in each of the remaining eight contests.

The Greeks enjoyed a relatively successful European Championships in the summer – certainly much more successful than that endured by the  Boys in Green.   Greece progressed to the knockout stages of the tournament ahead of Ireland’s qualification conquerors Russia – and beat the Russians 1-0 in the final Group game to progress to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals.  The Greeks were beaten 4-2 by a young and tenacious German side in the quarter-finals, but they put up a much better fight than Ireland’s flimsy effort against Die Mannschaft in Dublin some four weeks ago.

The Greeks are currently sitting in second place in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group with 10 points from four games.  They have conceded just one goal and scored five times in those four games.  Greek results are built on their solidity as they generally absorb opposition pressure with counter attacking their usual means of getting forward.  Celtic striker Georgios Samaras and veteran Gekas (a recent recruit to La Liga side Levante) are the target men who are sought to score the majority of Greece’s goals.

The Greeks typically play a 4-4-2 formation which is almost identical to that of Trapattoni’s Ireland.  It’s a style which is not easy on the eye and is certainly not conducive to free flowing football.  The FAI have priced tickets at just €20 for adults for next Wednesday night’s game in Dublin between the Irish and Greece.  If the Association hope to have more than 20,000 fans at Lansdowne Road for the game, they will need to slash those prices further.  Such is the disillusionment with the current Irish regime that many die-hard Irish fans could not be persuaded to attend this game even if they were given a free ticket.

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