Ireland need two Keane edges for Les Bleus battle

Ireland 1 Italy 2

"This is the minor match," was how one FAI official put it beforehand.

But not, as it turned out, a match of minor incident, as Ireland surrendered their coveted home record of 17 games unbeaten. Now, thanks to an Italian double hit, it's more a case of 18 with a bullet.

That's the bad news. The good news is that, on the basis of a spirited second-half display in particular, Brian Kerr's men can consider themselves unlucky not to have taken a a share of the spoils.

Bearing in mind this was an Irish team shorn of the two Keanes, there is no reason for excessive gloom ahead of the big test to come.

Dress rehearsals normally provide a chance to get a sneak preview of the big production to come, as well as an opportunity to iron out any glitches before the grand opening.

Kerr will certainly have seen some last night, as a brace of Italian goals and a string of decent chances in the first half hinted at how things could go horribly wrong against France.

But he will have been lifted by Ireland's resilience and his team's ability to turn on the continental style.

The powerful Vieri was a constant threat in the first half an hour but it was the all round pace and first-touch passing of the visitors which had the Irish central defence of Richard Dunne and Kenny Cunningham trailing in their wake. The Italian goals were the end product of sustained pressure, and were delayed in coming only by the reassuring excellence of Shay Given and, in one spectacular case after Nesta's long ball had floated over Dunne and onto Vieri's instep, the sturdiness of the Irish crossbar.

Not for the first time, attack proved the best form of Irish defence. The 4-5-1 line-up when Italy had the ball meant hard-working Clinton Morrison was often struggling for support when his colleagues hit him with a long one. But when the green jerseys got forward in numbers, turning one into three upfront, they caused Italian hearts to flutter. Andy Reid and Damien Duff, switching wings and dictating much of the play, were involved in some superb moves, as was John O' Shea when he advanced into midfield in place of the injured Matt Holland.

It was the same in the Faroes too playing for Ireland, the Manchester United full-back has recently looked happier in a more forward role. And while Kerr may be rightly reluctant to shake up his customary Keane/Kilbane midfield, changes can sometimes be forced on a coach, and O'Shea's versatility does open up the possibility of Ian Harte, who had a mixed outing last night, making an even stronger bid for the full back position.

Bearing in mind the threat he poses with the dead ball and the urgent need for goals at home to France and Switzerland, the Levante man could yet have a further say in the World Cup qualifying campaign after his goals against Israel and the Faroes.

Crucially, Ireland replied within a minute of Italy going two in front, Reid's 31st minute strike after Zaccardo's slip a vital tonic at a point when the game could have run away from the Irish. Instead, the home side made it a contest of equals, threatening as often as they were threatened.

Richard Dunne, still in search of match fitness, left at half-time, the arrival of Andy O'Brien adding a more solid look to the Irish rearguard.

But there was no shifting Shay Given; it can be taken as a measure of Kerr's concerns about the Italian threat that there was to rest for Ireland's number one last night. Yet as Kerr's counterpart Lippi rang the changes, it was Ireland who emerged as the more cohesive unit, aided by the arrival of a strong and positive Stephen Carr.

Stephen Elliott came on with less than 15 minutes to go, giving the Irish something more like the dual front man posture to which they will doubtless revert with Robbie Keane's return. Italy might have capitalised on one late counter-attack but for the remainder of the game it was the home side which peppered the Italian end as Duff, Morrison, Kilbane and Elliott, all went close to getting the goal which would have preserved the Fortress Lansdowne reputation.

It wasn't to be, and that's hardly the ideal tee-up for a game against France, particularly with the news from Montpelier that Zidane has rediscovered his international shooting boots.

But then, the Irish will also be welcoming their own talisman back to the competitive fray on September 7. Not for the first time, his country needs Roy Keane. And Keane eile too.

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