The Long and the short of it

IF only every international friendly were as open and entertaining as last night’s then it wouldn’t be quite so easy to row in with Alex Ferguson, who spoke for most club bosses the world over this week when labelling the concept a ‘waste of time’.

The Manchester United manager clearly found many an assenting voice in these parts this week judging by the desert of empty seats yet again at the Aviva Stadium but profits on such occasions can be recorded by other means.

All eyes may have been on James McCarthy, who was afforded a start in the hole behind Shane Long, but it was the lone striker who proceeded to capture the imagination with his 23rd goal and all-round performance in what is a breakthrough season.

Long’s emergence as a consistent getter of goals has been the story of the season from an Irish perspective after three previous campaigns in which he had managed a combined tally of 27 in all competitions for club and country.

If his progress mirrors anyone’s it is probably that of Kevin Doyle with whom he served at Cork City before Reading came in with an offer for the Wexford man and took the younger Long along as an addendum to the deal.

With Doyle recently voted as his country’s player of the year and Keane closing in on the magical 50-goal marker in green, the fact is that Ireland have never enjoyed greater firepower than in the here and now.

There were still more nuggets to be gleaned in the shape of Ciaran Clarke, who looked assured once again despite losing Abel Hernandez for Uruguay’s third, and Keith Fahey, whose dead-ball skills were again a source of some discomfort to the opposition.

Add in Keiren Westwood’s double save midway through the second-half – he couldn’t be faulted for any of the goals conceded – and there was more than enough for Giovanni Trapattoni to mull over on the return trip to Milanello.

Which brings us to the visitors.

Uruguay started seven of the men who took the national anthems for the World Cup semi-final against Holland last summer and boasted three times the number of caps of an Ireland side that fielded seven men yet to break the double digits mark.

Shakespeare, Cervantes and John Donne all agreed that comparisons are odious and yet it was hard not to do so given the opposition was a nation of 3.5 million people living in the shadow of a more heralded footballing power.

Actually, two footballing superpowers, to be strictly accurate.

Culture, geography, history et al certainly dilute the relevance of any compare and contrast exercises where Uruguay and Ireland are concerned and yet the South Americans were a timely reminder of just what Trapattoni’s side should aim to achieve.

Their fourth-placed finish in last year’s World Cup – we won’t dwell on their two titles back in the day — may seem like an unattainable paradise for an Irish side that struggled to account for Macedonia last Saturday but here too there are lessons to be learned.

Diego Forlan was a long way from receiving the tournament’s golden boot award at the penultimate stage of the South American qualifying round when the ‘Celeste’ were struggling to secure fifth place and a play-off spot in a ten-team group.

And it got worse before it got better.

With 22 minutes to go, current Manchester United midfeilder Antonio Valencia put Ecuador ahead in Quito before Luis Suarez equalised and Forlan struck the winner from a penalty three minutes into injury-time.

They still weren’t out of the woods. A subsequent defeat to Argentina could still have cost them their place in South Africa but Ecuador’s own reversal in Chile saw them through to a successful all-or-nothing two-legged tie against Costa Rica.

All of this is worth noting if only for the fact that Trapattoni has been insisting for many a month that Group B of the current European Championship qualifiers will accommodate many a twist and turn before the final curtain comes down.

Hopefully not so many as last night.

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