Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Could Ireland Be In For A Cyprus Hell?

Ireland go into a Euro 2008 qualification double-header, against Cyprus away on Saturday and the Czech Republic at home next Wednesday, without their troubles to seek. The game against Cyprus alone engenders trepidation given how difficult our last visit to Nicosia was. Could Stan's regime be about to have its Macedonia?

The night after West Ham played Newcastle a couple of weeks ago, Stephen Staunton may have suddenly awoken, bolt upright, from a tormented slumber, the sweat cascading from his brow like it hadn't done since that day in Orlando. Hyperventilating, but coming to, he would have calmed down a little. "Jesus, what a nightmare. Marlon Harewood reefing his studs into Shay's midriff, tearing his bowel and causing him to miss the next six .........AAAAAAAARRRRGHHHHH!!!!!

And so Ireland finally go into a major competitive match without the man whose extraordinary performances for his country over the last few years have not only kept us in the running for qualification places we could well have had no chance of coming near to, but very possibly also prevented our descent toward the Burundi and Vanuatu neighbourhood of the world rankings.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the Donegalman, and a perfect illustration of that came in the same fixture around this time last year in the World Cup 2006 qualifiers. Ireland smuggled three points out of Nicosia in the most larcenous fashion imaginable, with a penalty save and numerous other stops by Given sparing his country's blushes.

Big shoes, Paddy Kenny, big shoes.

By common consent, aside from Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane are our only other truly top-class players and for Ireland to achieve great things, our two attacking shining lights have to burn at their brightest. That, at the moment, is quite patently not the case.

Take this from a Spurs supporter, quoted in last Sunday's Observer: "At Anfield last week I expended more energy than [Robbie Keane] simply by walking to my seat.....this season in the league he has only had 30 good minutes, against Sheffield United - that's criminal." On the bench against Portsmouth on Sunday and yet to score this season. Not exactly on fire, then, is young Robbie.

Duff, like Keane, is at a crucial stage of his career: the transition from precocious ingenue to consistent, senior pro. Deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea, Duff's move to Newcastle may not prove to be the right one to facilitate his path to maturity The Magpies show no clear signs of emerging from their almost perennial state of directionless confusion, and the feeling of poor leadership permeates from boardroom through manager's office, onto the field.

If there are question marks over his environment, Duff may also need to look at his own game. He has been around long enough for opposition defences to figure him out, a problem evident in international as well as club football. Often in recent times, his jinking, close control style as seen him shepherded into blind alleys rather than darting menacingly into the box. His undoubted talent is one of Ireland's few potent weapons, and, like Keane, if he is subdued on Saturday, our capacity to score is severely diminished.

The loss through injury of Graham Kavanagh and Stephen Reid has denied Ireland of much needed beef in the middle of the park. In the event of a torrid evening in Nicosia, Kavanagh's ball retention and Reid's athleticism could have been invaluable in stiffening the Irish centre.

Following their withdrawal, it was speculated that Lee Carsley would be called up to the squad, on the back of consistent donkey-work in the engine room of the Everton midfield during their decent start to the current season. Instead, Staunton chose to bring in Alan Quinn of Sheffield United, although the latter's family bereavement yesterday may affect his involvement.

While Carsley never troubled Messrs Giles, Brady and Keane for a nomination to the Irish Midfield Hall of Fame, his experience and industry alone would seem to have made him at least a timely stop-gap for a threadbare central midfield. Staunton was perhaps looking to the future in ignoring Carsley, or was conscious of the latter's requirement of first team involvement as a condition of his recall.

Whatever, the manager will now very likely go with Kevin Kilbane and John O'Shea in midfield, pausing to perhaps consider the claims of Liam Miller. The most important part of the team may have to feature two players for whom the position is not their natural habitat, or one currently attempting once again to kickstart a career which never really seemed to get going.

As ever, our naturally sunny disposition cannot foresee only thunderstorms over the Eastern Mediterranean. You think Ireland are struggling? Cyprus were hammered 6-1 by Slovakia in their opening qualifier, prior to the Slovaks 3-0 defeat against the Czechs. While the Cypriots have always performed exponentially better at home than away, it is a fixture Ireland should nonetheless expect to win.

Also, not all of Ireland's players are out of form. Richard Dunne has been suitably stout for Manchester City, their poor start to the season being more the fault of goalscoring deficiency than defensive weakness. Steve Finnan - although caught in the air against Bolton on Saturday - has being doing well, particularly in offensive play, for Liverpool.

Kevin Doyle has made a barnstorming start to his Premiership career, dragging more wonder out of the tale of his progression from the Eircom League to the upper echelons of English soccer. And Aiden McGeady has been taken up as a cause celebre by the local soccer press, following his recent good form for Celtic. The back pages of some of the Irish papers in recent days have been strongly prodding the young Glaswegian towards the front of first team queue.

Tactical question marks there may be, but there is nothing to suggest - the difficulties of his banishment to the stand notwithstanding - that Staunton isn't able to motivate his players. If he gets a repeat of the level of spirit shown in Stuttgart last month, it could be enough to help Ireland navigate the current choppy waters.


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