Trap backs Long shot against Slovakia

GIOVANNI TRAPATTONI began his traditional eve of match press conference in the by now predictable manner, extolling the virtues of his team during their performances over the summer which saw them score 10 goals and concede none over five games.

But, as Ireland face up to Slovakia this evening in a must-win European Championship qualifier, it was clear the manager was looking for something qualitatively different to what Ireland offered on their most recent outing at the Aviva.

“We played well against Croatia,” he said referring to the recent scoreless draw, “but against Slovakia, and for qualification, it will be very, very important to play with more incision and more determination.”

That this was more than mere fighting talk was immediately confirmed when the manager named his starting 11 and sprung one of the selection surprises of his time in charge of Ireland: Shane Long would get the nod ahead of Kevin Doyle to partner Robbie Keane up front tonight.

Of course, Long is hardly a greenhorn at this stage and, indeed, already proved himself a thorn in the side of the Slovakians when he played against them in Zilina last September. Trapattoni has long been a vocal admirer of the player’s strength in the air — his “spring”, as the manager likes to call it — but, interestingly, in explaining his selection this time, he highlighted one of the Long’s other attributes.

“There are many considerations to be taken into account about the quality of the Slovakia defenders,” he said, “and I think Long’s pace can maybe put them in difficulty.”

It’s clear too, that Trapattoni is basing his decision in large part on current form, the Tipperary striker having hit the ground running this season as a Premier League player with West Brom.

“He scores goals and therefore he achieves more confidence. Against this typical Slovakia defender maybe he can do the same.”

Like all strikers Long’s game is indeed substantially about confidence — if he can get off to a positive start in the early exchanges, there’s a much greater likelihood of Trapattoni’s decision being richly vindicated. And, of course, there is the considerable bonus that, if needs be, he can turn to the effective and experienced Doyle on the bench. Despite the player’s impressive start to the season at Wolves, Trapattoni still appears to harbour some concerns about the residual effects of the knee injury which disfigured Doyle’s season last time around. To that extent, the decision to leave him on the bench tonight could also be informed by a reluctance to expose him to 180 minutes of high-intensity action in the space of just five days.

In other words, don’t be surprised if Doyle is back in the starting line-up for Moscow on Tuesday.

As expected, Stephen Ward replaces the injured Kevin Kilbane this evening, a back problem bringing to an end the veteran’s remarkable run of 66 consecutive competitive caps and also ruling him out of the game against Russia next week. The rest of the team, as they say, picks itself, Trapattoni having the rare and very timely luxury of fielding all his “famoos” names for what is one of the crunch games of the qualification campaign.

The bench is a pretty impressive looking one too, especially now that Kevin Doyle joins Stephen Hunt, Liam Lawrence, Simon Cox and Darren O’Dea while Trapattoni confirmed yesterday the squad has been strengthened by call-ups for James McCarthy and Damien Delaney.

Even though the Slovakians are capable opposition, it’s not hard to see why the manager feels confident although, this being Ireland, we should probably expect any victory to be hard earned and, especially late on, not without its nerve-jangling moments.

People will look to the attacking foursome of Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Long and Keane to make all the difference but, as we know from too many long nights in Dublin, Shay Given could very well be called upon to bail things out at some point in the evening.

But as Trapattoni himself would say, at this stage in qualification it’s all about results, results, results. A convincing victory would be lovely but a victory of any kind will suffice. Anything less, however, and Ireland’s hopes of travelling to Poland and Ukraine next summer will begin to unravel.

Trapattoni certainly isn’t contemplating that scenario. He concluded yesterday’s press conference with a rousing call to arms: “Our weapons are ready,” he said.

And just in case we still didn’t get the message, his interpreter Manuela clarified: “The guns are out.”

Now that is fighting talk.

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