IRELAND versus Russia — more than most, it’s a tricky one to call.
We might know more about Russian football than ever before but, with so many of Dick Advocaat’s players being drawn from the domestic league, there is still something of the enigmatic eastern threat about them, an unpredictability made all the more pronounced by their recent loss to Slovakia.
We know what to expect from Ireland — indeed, for the third game in a row, Giovanni Trapattoni is sticking with exactly the same starting line-up. But which Russia will show up in the Aviva Stadium?
And, while we’re at it, we can pose a number of other questions which would appear key to determining the outcome of Ireland’s biggest 2012 European Championship qualifier to date. Will Andrey Arshavin blow hot or cold? Will the Russian bear be all the more dangerous for having had its claws clipped in Slovakia? How will Paul Green fare in his biggest international test to date? Can Kevin Kilbane’s ageing legs stand up to Russian pace on the flanks? And, perhaps the most significant question of all, especially if Ireland are to deliver their most significant win in Dublin since the 1-0 victory over Holland all of nine years ago: will our man in Moscow turn out to be the man in Dublin?
It’s a source of encouragement in the absence yet again of Damien Duff, that Aiden McGeady comes into tonight’s game on the back of impressive form for both club and country and with the ever louder plaudits of Trapattoni ringing in his ears. But while McGeady’s game might be coming together as never before, the final piece of the jigsaw continues to elude one of Ireland’s most creative attacking talents: 33 caps into his international career and, remarkably, he has yet to find the back of the net.
“I know Aiden and he’s desperate to score a goal for Ireland and I’m sure he’ll be especially hoping to do it against Russia,” says captain Robbie Keane. “Aiden can score goals because he has pace and the ability to beat players for fun. But as long as he keeps providing for other people — which he does for the team — then that’ll be great for us.
“You can see a new maturity in Aiden. He’s getting better and better — and he’s still only a young player. He’s doing well for his new team and, for Ireland, he has set a standard for himself that he has to continue.”
Trapattoni also believes McGeady is closer now than ever before to realising his full potential.
“Against Andorra, McGeady played very well,” says the manager. “I saw also two of the games he has played in Russia with Spartak Moscow and it’s obvious he has grown in confidence. For two years we have told him that he doesn’t just have to stay out near the touchline. To score a goal you need to go to the box more. He understands that now.
“Remember before he went to Russia I said I’m not sure it would be the right place for him because of the harsh winter and a hard league? Now that he has gone to that country, I think the move has unblocked him. Before I came here I thought also maybe McGeady could play in future as a second striker because he is so quick. Now Spartak sometimes use him in this position. And it is something we can look at if we need to change our system.”
Robbie Keane says that while Ireland need to be wary of Arshavin, he expects Russia to be equally troubled by the twin threat on the flanks of McGeady and Liam Lawrence. For his part, Trapattoni admits Advocaat might spring a surprise in his positioning of the Arsenal man who normally operates on the left side of a three-pronged Russian attack.
“Maybe Advocaat will change, I don’t know,” says the Italian. “But we will have to immediately understand where Arshavin plays. Sometimes he plays left, sometimes right and in the past also behind the striker. But he plays in England and we have defenders who know him. And it’s not about one player picking him up — it’s important we are compact and that the group is solid.”
That will especially be the case in central midfield where Green will be earning only his fifth cap but, in the face of questions about how the inexperienced midfielder will handle his biggest international challenge yet, Trapattoni appeals for calm.
“Better not to put too much weight on his shoulders,” he smiles, “because already we have had the question: why him, why not Gibson? You need players to stop the opposition, to win the ball for you. He might not play beautiful football, so to speak, but every team needs a player like him.”
And, after an initial period of sizing each other up, skipper Keane expects tonight’s game to be a full-blooded affair. “It’ll probably be a game of chess to start off with but I’m sure it’ll open up and, with the attacking players we have, I’m sure we can make life difficult for them.”
Elsewhere, Slovakia face a trip to unfancied Armenia tonight while Macedonia visit Andorra.
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