The build up is generally more exciting then the event. The possibilities ultimately give way to the practical reality of nothing particularly inspiring. And with that came this week’s squad announcement for the Republic of Ireland’s upcoming matches against Kazakhstan and Oman.
The major point of note doesn’t particularly need highlighting but there was an element of inevitability with the confirmation of Damien Duff’s permanent withdrawal from the Irish set up. The 100 caps will be trotted out as a main point of reference but more telling could be how Ireland miss him in the upcoming qualifying campaign for Brazil.
We could easily point to James McClean as a ready-made replacement. For all the promise and hope McClean brings they are different players. Duff while often direct as McClean can be has often been called upon to create time and space for hard working Irish sides to regroup. His ability and experience in retaining possession, holding up the ball in wide areas and consistently winning free kicks from dangerous positions will be missed.
There is a huge leadership vacuum now missing with Richard Dunne injured and unsure to return and Duff and Shay Given gone. For all the talk of young blood, the experience of those three players in Kazakhstan will be missed. This match is by no means a certainty.
With the retirement of Given now reluctantly accepted, Keiren Westwood is now, already, Ireland’s recognised number one.
David Forde has done well at Millwall but at 32, it seems unlikely the Galway man will replace Westwood in the future. However he should get a run out against Oman at Craven Cottage. Darren Randolph, the youngest of the three keepers, still has time on his hands to build on his reputation as Motherwell’s confirmed first choice.
The most pressing aspect for Westwood will be the need for regular starts with Simon Mignolet currently the favoured choice for Martin O’Neill at Sunderland. But if he performs consistently for Ireland it is unlikely Trapattoni will push the issue.
Across the back
Marc Wilson seems to do his best to irritate Trapattoni at times but the Italian has called the versatile Stoke player up as back up. The reality is Wilson should be an automatic squad choice ahead of Paul McShane regardless. McShane, exposed for pace on one particular occasion against Serbia is currently getting no further then the substitutes bench at Hull.
The likely starters in Irelands opening qualifier in the full back roles are Stephen Kelly, who unfortunately is also not staring at club level for Fulham and Stephen Ward who scored this week for Wolves. Ward though was exposed to be rather limited in the Polish misadventure and if Robbie Brady can secure a good move from Old Trafford this season – loan or otherwise – he could and should replace him in time.
Richard Dunne is missing through injury alone, its hoped, and his experience in a tricky away match will be missed. The European Championships appeared to particularly hurt Dunne. Whether it’s his last experience in an Irish Jersey, time will ultimately tell. His regular centre back partner Seán StLedger is also injured at present, which means John O’Shea, and Darren O’Dea will deputise, O’Shea moving from full back. O’Dea will likely be one of two Irish starters who plays in the MLS. His move to Toronto FC under Paul Mariner has seen regular starts but also regular defeats. However O’Dea was solid in Belgrade.
Midfield options and opportunities
Keith Andrews was Ireland’s best player at Euro 2012. Some might say that’s not saying much but Andrews showed guile, purpose and attacking endeavour in Ireland’s three group matches. His frustration ultimately boiled over and his red card against Italy means that he couldn’t be included for this outing. This opens up opportunities to the likes of Darron Gibson and James McCarthy to lay a permanent claim to his place. James McCarthy played well and was talked up a little after the Serbian friendly but the performance whilst decent wasn’t much more than that and one lapse pf concentration when he played a dangerous ball back into the Irish defence shows that he is not the complete player referred to by Brian Kerr in Setanta’s post match analysis.
Darron Gibson’s performance though for Everton in their opening league win over Manchester United this week will surely have given much encouragement to the Irish management set up. A tidy display by Gibson saw him contribute hugely to the win, tackling well, passing with accuracy to feet and playing with a solid all round awareness not always associated with him. If he continues to perform at this level he must start against Kazakhstan.
Aiden McGeady and James McClean are now the obvious choices on the flanks, which leave either one or two slots open in midfield. Realistically, regardless of whether Trapattoni goes with a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 there will only be one other free berth for a midfielder the other slot going to one of his front men a lá how he started against Italy and Serbia.
That would mean a battle between Glen Whelan and James McCarthy and knowing what we do about the Irish manager a start for Glen Whelan is the most likely option.
It’s good to see Joey O’Brien back in the international fold and he offers cover at both full back and in midfield. Seamus Coleman will be seen as back up again by Trapattoni. He will need to nudge Steven Pienaar out of the Everton side after the loanee turned returnee kept the Donegal man on the bench.
Leading from the front
It’s an unusual situation when you take a step back and look at it objectively but it wouldn’t be the most unfair observation to make that there is a plethora of fans and commentators who are disappointed at the inclusion of Ireland’s top goal scorer. Yet Robbie Keane is included. His attitude and commitment should be applauded. It’s whether Trapattoni will make the right decision that’s questionable. But coming off a player of the month award in the MLS proves that Keane can again push for inclusion.
Jon Waters and Shane Long should be ahead of Simon Cox and Kevin Doyle but it appears to be the Championship strikers who are favoured. Cox has started well at Nottingham Forest and showed his usual endeavour but he was kept out of the West Brom side by Long as it’s Long who possesses a greater threat against premiership defences.
Waters has been impressive any opportunity he has had for Ireland, even when secluded for long periods as he was against Serbia. Doyle has had the most dramatic dip in form of most Irish players, let alone strikers. But still the potential to return to his best isn’t lost. David Moyes could be the man to improve prospects for him.
The most surprising inclusion was that of Millwalls Andy Keogh who while primarily a striker can also play on the wing. In the five strikers mentioned Ireland have adequate cover. The question is, is Keogh good enough to keep out Stephen Hunt, Wes Hoolahan or Kevin Pilkington?
Regardless injuries could still see any of these three amongst others get a late call up. The road to Brazil is about to open. Let’s hope Ireland last the course.