Ireland’s major test – a personal preview
Giovanni Trapattoni must ensure that Ireland's players do not allow the anticipation of a major contest with World champions Italy deflect attention from a match of equal importance against Cyprus in Nicosia.
Much of the pre-match publicity - too much you could say - has dwelt upon Ireland's heavy defeat in Nicosia three years ago when the team led by Stephen Staundon was hammered 5-2.
Trapattoni's assistant, Marco Tardelli, spoke this week of how the management team examined a video of the match, analysed it and spoke to the players about it.
What will have alarmed them more, one suspects, is how that defeat has been presented as an aberration, a contradiction of what should, legitimately, have taken place.
It was as if Cyprus had no right to defeat Ireland. As if Ireland, because of history and their higher ranking in the FIFA table, should have strolled to a comfortable win.
It is true Ireland deserved to be regarded as favourites to win that match. Their record against Cyprus suggested as much. But the great attraction of football, its constant attraction and captivating appeal is rooted in its unpredictable nature.
It is true Ireland were out of touch on the night. They made mistakes that were as indefensible as they were mystifying. And they were a defeated, dis-spirited group at the final whistle.
It is true, and it is as well to acknowledge here, that Cyprus were very good on the night. They out-played Ireland and showed they were technically adept, skilful in possession and athletic.
They showed as much again when they came to Dublin in the current World Cup eleven months ago for their third match against Ireland in two years. A lone headed goal from Robbie Keane separated the teams.
The goal came as early as the 5th minute and if any doubts existed amongst Irish fans about the ability of Cyprus, they were surely shattered that evening. As well as matching Ireland for the rest of the match, they showed themselves tactically flexible as they went smoothly from 4-4-2 in the opening half to 3-5-2 in the second and went close to saving the match.
All of this serves to highlight the fact that Ireland face a test in Nicosia that could frustrate their World Cup ambitions. The old cliché applies ... qualification for the finals in South Africa will not be won or lost in this match, but it could be compromised.
The fact is that it is still mathematically possible for several of the teams in this highly competitive group to finish in the top two positions. Cyprus have every incentive to chase three points here for they will follow their match against Ireland with matches away to Montenegro, home to Bulgaria and away to Italy. A lot of points to play for.
Italy beat them 2-1 in Nicosia in the opening match of the tournament and it was a close run thing. Italy's winning goal came in the dying seconds and had Cyprus taken their scoring chances earlier and had goalkeeper Buffon not performed heroically for Iraly, they could comfortably have taken three points.
Everything points to the fact that tonight's match could be won by either team, depending upon which of them strikes form and which of them gets the benefit of a break here or there. And Ireland are at risk of suffering a first defeat in the competition.
Trapattoni, more than any other, will be well aware of this. You can be sure that the hugely experienced manager will have lived through similar circumstances in his long and distinguished career. And this comes as a comfort to anybody supporting Ireland.
He will have welcomed the absence of Cyprus' big and powerful striker Constantinou who has tormented Ireland in the past. And he will emphasise for Ireland's defenders, the need to corral the swift and elusive two strikers, Alonefitis and Okkas, so they are channeled down avenues that take them away from goal.
Most of all he will emphasise the need for Ireland to dominate the game in midfield and it is highly likely that this is why he has preferred Stephen Hunt to Aiden McGeady. Expect Hunt to pull inside off the wing to support Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan.
Ireland will not enjoy many scoring chances for they will have to play with caution. Above all they must not lose and this reality will dictate their tactical approach. There will be no rash rushes forward by central midfielders or defenders.
A tight and competitive match can be expected. And in this regard the ability of the peerless Shay Given in Ireland's goal is a source of confidence ... as is the customary defiance of Richard Dunne. Hopefully Sean St. Ledger will measure up to the task of keeping his end up and Kevin Kilbane will be strong and decisive.
One reporter in a morning newspaper today wrote: "Three points is the minimum required if Trapattoni's men are to keep the maximum pressure on the group leaders Italy."
Well if that is not stating the obvious than I don't know what is. But that trite statement reflects a state of mind that hopefully will not infect the Irish dressing-room.
All thoughts of Italy and winning the group must be banished from the throughts of Ireland's players.
The priority is not to lose, not to concede a goal. The aim is to play to their full potential. The aspiration is to take their scoring chances. Everything else is secondary.
The teams are expected to line out as follows:
Ireland: Shay Given; JohnO'Shea, Sean St. Ledger, Richard Dunne; Kevin Kilbane, Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan, Stephen Hunt; Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle.
Cyprus: Avgousti; Garpozis, Charalambous, Constantinou, Ilia; Charalambides, Satsias, Michail, Avraam; Aloneftis, Okkas.
- Preview for FAI.ie by billy george