Robbie Keane is confident that Ireland are heading for the Euro 2012 finals with a stronger pool of strikers than they had for the 2002 World Cup.
Keane, the nation’s record goalscorer with 53, will lead the line once again in Poland and Ukraine, but Kevin Doyle, who has got the nod for tomorrow’s friendly against Bosnia, Shane Long, Jon Walters and Simon Cox are battling for the right to partner him.
Ten years ago, the LA Galaxy frontman went to the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea as one of another five-strong group of forwards along with Damien Duff, Niall Quinn, David Connolly and Clinton Morrison, and he is convinced Giovanni Trapattoni’s men will pose a greater threat this time around.
He said: “It’s a lot stronger than we had, probably, back then, and that’s no disrespect to the lads back then.
“Quinny was kind of at the end and he knew he was going to be a bit-part player, but all these strikers now want to play in every game, so certainly, I think the standard is a lot better.
“Everybody, not just the strikers, is desperate to play in that first game, so the intensity and the level of performance is naturally going to go up because every player wants to be picked by the manager.
“Certainly as strikers, the lads at club level have been doing very, very well, so whoever the manager picks out of the five of us, we just have to make the most of it and make sure that we stake our claim and stay in the team.”
Keane will carry a huge weight of expectation as both captain and Trapattoni’s main goal threat, but he insists he is comfortable with his dual role.
He said: “My job is to do that. As captain, you can’t carry the whole team, so first and foremost, you have to make sure that as a player, you are doing the best you can to help the team, so I will be certainly doing that.”
The first wave of players arrived last Thursday and the remainder joined up on Sunday, a full three weeks before Ireland open their campaign against Croatia on June 10.
They face three tough games inside nine days, but Keane is happy with a potentially gruelling schedule.
He said: “I have been like that in my whole career, to be honest with you. I have enjoyed playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, if you like.
“I certainly do feel a lot sharper when I play a lot of games on the bounce, so hopefully that will be the case.”
For a few days last week, there was a concern that Keane might not even make the trip to Poland after picking up a hamstring strain while playing for LA Galaxy on an artificial pitch, and although he admits the thought briefly crossed his mind, he was soon reassured.
Asked if he had been worried, the 31-year-old said: “Of course I was. I kind of knew it wasn’t too bad, to be honest with you, but I knew there was something there.
“The physios said it was a little nerve in the hamstring, and it seems to have settled down quite well.
“I have trained the last few days and thankfully, I’m okay.”
Health bulletins have been a feature of the daily updates from the Republic’s Malahide training headquarters this week and at one point, it appeared that keeper Shay Given and defenders Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger and John O’Shea could all miss tomorrow’s game.
However, Trapattoni sprang something of a surprise today when he named both Dunne and St Ledger in his starting line-up, while both Given, who visited a knee specialist in London yesterday, and Dunne are on the mend.
Keane said: “Any player when you come to a major tournament like this, the last thing you want is to get a few niggles.
“But listen, you would prefer to get a little niggle than a really bad injury.
“The lads are fine. It was more a precaution for Shay to go over and just make sure that it wasn’t too bad.
“He knew it wasn’t really, really bad, but he just wanted, I think, in his own mind to make sure, and Richard was the same.
“I think he kind of knew that he might be okay towards the end of the week.
“When you are playing for so long and you get little niggles, it’s amazing what one or two days can do for you.
“If you haven’t played the game, people from the outside would probably think, ’How can one, two days make a massive difference?’, but it certainly does.”