That’s the harsh reality for the Republic of Ireland following two largely disappointing performances against Russia and Slovakia in the qualifiers for the 2012 European Championships.
A first half schooling by Russia at the Aviva Stadium last Friday looked a lot better on paper thanks to two largely undeserved goals, while Robbie Keane’s penalty miss and general poor finishing last night meant Ireland left Zilina wondering what might have been.
Manager Giovanni Trapattoni has admitted that a lack of first team football at Tottenham Hotspur is affecting Keane, and he’s dead right. The problem for Ireland is that there are too many first choice players in the same boat. Shay Given hasn’t played for Manchester City yet this season, Kevin Kilbane has taken up permanent residence on the Hull City substitutes’ bench, and Glen Whelan is no longer a first choice for Tony Pulis at Stoke City.
On the flipside, there are some excellent players who are playing regularly at the top level yet are continually overlooked for selection. James McCarthy has declared himself for Ireland over Scotland and has been excellent at the heart of Wigan’s midfield. It is simply criminal that he is not being utilised when Paul Green, who is clearly not of the standard required for international football, continues to hold down a starting spot.
Wolves duo Kevin Foley and Stephen Ward have also been Premier League regulars this season and, with the full back positions looking less than solid at present, the two should be automatic choices to provide cover at the very least. The fact that they have a combined total of one international cap between them is really quite alarming. Then there’s Seamus Coleman, highly rated by David Moyes and Everton, and Greg Cunningham who has just penned a new long term deal with big spending Manchester City. Both are serious talents and it isn’t too outlandish to suggest that, given a proper chance, they could be the full back combination for the next decade.
Admittedly Trapattoni was without a number of key players due to injury, with Damien Duff and Stephen Hunt ruled out of the initial squad, while both Kevin Doyle and Liam Lawrence picked up injuries on Dublin on Friday. Important qualifiers against difficult opposition may not be the most appropriate time to adopt a ‘sink or swim’ attitude by trying previously untested players, but the manager had no qualms about including Green in the middle of the park for the campaign opener after one full friendly appearance against Paraguay.
The team’s tactics and mentality are again questionable and the brand of ‘hoofball’ seen most recently against Russia simply must go. Kevin Doyle, while very good in the air, is no Peter Crouch at just under 6ft tall yet the midfield was continually bypassed in favour of a long punt forward. It could be argued that the lack of a creative influence in the middle of the park means that there is no alternative. However, with the likes of McCarthy, Keith Fahey and Darron Gibson all capable of stringing a few passes together, the excuse loses merit once you look outside the starting eleven.
There have been calls to drop Keane in the wake of his poor performance in Slovakia but the fact of the matter is that he is still Ireland’s number one striker and his record at international level is excellent. In the qualifiers for the last World Cup, Ireland scored twelve goals with Keane contributing five of these. His problems at club level need to be sorted early on in the January transfer window, giving him two months to get match fit in time for the Macedonia game at home in March 2011.
There are two friendlies against Norway and Wales between now and the next competitive game which Trapattoni will hopefully use to experiment with some fresh faces, though anyone expecting a radical change in tactics will be hugely disappointed.
However something has to give as, with three teams tied for second spot on seven points behind the Russians in Group B, it will be a difficult task to even make the playoffs with a trip to Moscow included in the games still to come.
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