Although Walters, with just three caps, has only played ten minutes of competitive football under Trapattoni — when he impressed as a late substitute against Armenia in Dublin — the manager indicated yesterday that it’s the Stoke striker rather than West Brom’s Simon Cox who will take advantage of the absence of Kevin Doyle through suspension and Shane Long through injury.
The tried and tested might well be the Trapattoni way but, as he reminded us yesterday, he didn’t hesitate to throw either Sean St Ledger or Stephen Ward in at the deep end in the past.
Indeed, the choice of Cox ahead of Long for the away game in Macedonia is another example of the manager springing a selection surprise.
Now, against the tall, imposing defenders of Estonia in Tallinn on Friday, Trapattoni appears to think Walters offers the kind of muscular presence which will provide the best foil for Keane.
“When defenders are big and strong, it’s good to have a player who can hold the ball up and bring others into play,” said Trapattoni. “Cox is a little bit the same as Robbie. Walters is other.”
As he spoke after training in Malahide yesterday, Trapattoni had already been given a striking boost by his captain, Keane scoring for LA Galaxy in their 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the MLS on Sunday night.
It was confirmation Ireland’s record goalscorer, who is due to link up with the Irish squad today, has fully recovered from the adductor muscle injury which he aggravated in the qualifier against Andorra and which, for a time, appeared set to rule him out of the play-offs.
“I feel good,” said Keane after the game in Los Angeles. “I think I said last week, it takes me two or three games to get sharp. I have to give full credit to the all the physios and the staff, Armando (Rivas) especially. He worked really hard on me to get me fit and come back a lot quicker than expected. This is three games in a week for me and it’s hard, I’ve been out for three-and-half weeks. But I will say, in three games you get your sharpness. And I felt a lot sharper against Salt Lake than I have in the last two games. So, I have two more games now with the Republic of Ireland, that’ll be five games in two weeks. It’s going to be tough but I’m looking forward to it.”
Trapattoni is a relieved man to have his talisman fit for the fray.
“Thank God it was not so serious an injury,” he said, “because he is our captain and we need his personality and international experience in games like this.”
Most people view Ireland as firm favourites against Estonia, an idea which drives Trapattoni almost to distraction. “Why are we considered superior?” he asked, voice rising, “they have reached the play-offs the same as us.”
And as if to illustrate the point that he won’t countenance any semblance of complacency going into the games, he rummaged in his pocket and produced a piece of paper.
“Is that your new contract?” a colleague quipped, as Trapattoni smiled. “I said this to the players and I need to say it to the media,” he announced, before glancing down at the piece of paper and reading out the words: “don’t jump the gun”.
And in a phrase all of his own — and much beloved in his native Italy — he added: “Be careful. Don’t say the cat is in the sack when he is not in the sack.”
He then added: “We have to be hungry. Players like Robbie and Damien Duff have been to the finals before but we also have young players for whom this is now a great opportunity to do the same. And so we must expend every bit of energy to achieve this result.”
Meanwhile, in the latest squad news, Leon Best has been ruled out of the first leg, after his wife went into labour yesterday. The Newcastle striker is also awaiting the results of a scan on a groin injury and, if the result of that is positive, it’s hoped he will join up with the squad on Saturday ahead of the second leg against Estonia in Dublin next Tuesday.