Ireland look to captain Keane for World Cup inspiration
Team captain Robbie Keane will carry a proud record into tomorrow's World Cup play-off, first leg, against France at Croke Park (8.00 pm kick-off).
Ireland's record goal-scorer was on the mark in Ireland's last two play-off matches in Dublin - against Turkey in 1999 and against Iran in 2001.
Ireland will again look to their prolific captain to provide the inspiration they will need if they are to overcome a French team that will include several players with distinguished records at international and club levels.
Two of their number helped Barcelona sweep through the European club competitions last season - Thierry Henry and Eric Abidal.
Several members of the squad helped France win runners-up honours in the World Cup of 2006 while Henry and Nicolas Anelka provide links to the French team that won the UEFA Championship of 2000 and Henry was a squad member when they won the World Cup in 1998.
The essence of success in football as in any team sport is surely the collective strength of the group and this is where Ireland will be confident of achieving a measure of superiority over France.
Their achievement in successfully navigating passage out of a demanding qualifying group was surely attributable to the level of commitment of a group of players who were determined to advance as one organised, harmonious, unit.
This was a tribute to manager Giovanni Trapattoni and his team. The advances that were made since the personable Italian assumed control in May of 2008 have been considerable and the matches against France over the next few days will undoubtedly be testimony of that.
The question is will it be enough ? Therein lies the perennial dilemma of team sport and the secret of its enduring appeal. For while preparation is clearly vital, the human element is, by its nature, unpredictable.
France will be favourites, that much is certain. Whether that counts for much or nothing at all depends largely upon Ireland and the level of performance they can reach and maintain at Croke Park and, on Wednesday next, at Stade de France.
A positive start for Ireland at Croke Park, fired by the confidence emanating from their successful and unbeaten run through the qualifying group and the support of their enthusiastic and ambitious fans, is essential.
Ireland will look to their experienced players to establish control of the pace and the trend of the game - Richard Dunne and goalkeeper Shay Given in defence, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff up front.
John O'Shea and Kevin Kilbane will bring the benefits of years of experience of matches at this level to bear as Ireland plot to curb the attacking inclinations of the French and look to provide a service for Ireland's ‘hit-men', Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle.
Keane's run of goal-scoring performances in this World Cup has been exceptional. He scored five of Ireland's twelve goals and all of them were critical to Ireland's cause.
Ireland's other goals came from Richard Dunne, Glenn Whelan and Kevin Doyle, with two each, and Sean St. Ledger with a spectacular headed goal against Italy.
Clearly Ireland would like to see a wider spread of goal-scoring across their front line but it will be equally important that Ireland's defence denies France an "away" goal. History shows that a concession in the home leg can be destructive.
Ireland will approach the game without fear for these French players are well-known to them. Ireland will devise special plans to counter the pace of Anelka and Henry and will strive to retain possession more effectively than they did in the thrilling draw with Italy last time out.
Ireland have had to work extremely hard to get this far. The management and players launched into this World Cup campaign with total dedication on September 3rd, 2008, when they beat Georgia in Mainz.
They have travelled too far to fail now when the final leg of the journey to South Africa is without complication and well sign-posted !