EVEN Robbie Keane admitted yesterday that we’re probably all a bit weary at this stage about the constant flashbacks to Ireland’s night of shame here in Nicosia three years ago.
But as tonight’s kick-off approaches in a game the outcome of which is crucial for Ireland’s World Cup qualification ambitions, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the visitors returning to the GSP stadium must do more than simply ensure that history does not repeat itself.
They must also create a little piece of fresh history for themselves as they go in search of victory on an opponent’s home turf for the first time in this World Cup Group 8 campaign. Of course, Ireland already have one away win under their belts, but that came at the expense of a Georgian side forced to play a long way from Tblisi. Unbeaten in their own capital in the group, the Georgians tonight play host there to Italy and even Giovanni Trapattoni does not dismiss out of hand the notion that it’s a game in which the group leaders could plausibly drop points.
“In football anything is possible,” he mused yesterday, before pointedly adding, “but it is important that first we look inside our own house.”
Meaning that, regardless of whatever else happens in the group, Ireland must take care of business in Nicosia tonight, with all in the camp agreed that — barring a slip-up by the Azzurri — three points is the minimum required if Trapattoni’s men are to keep the maximum pressure on the group leaders and world champions ahead of next month’s clash in Dublin. Three points would also all but secure a play-off place but the Irish are still aiming for higher than that.
And to achieve that objective, the manager, perhaps not surprisingly, has opted for the same starting 11 which secured a precious point in Sofia in June. The decision to select Stephen Hunt ahead of Aiden McGeady from the start might suggest that defensive concerns featured strongly in Trapattoni’s mind, especially given the recent signs of Kevin Kibane’s vulnerability in the left back role. However, the Italian was quick to remind his listeners that while Hunt is always willing to track back, he has already hit the goal trail with his new club Hull this season. “It’s important how we start the game,” said the manager, doubtless conscious of how, right from the off in Sofia, Hunt’s aggressive, direct and passionate style ruffled Bulgarian feathers to set up the platform for Richard Dunne’s early goal.
But, as he also did in that match, Trapattoni has indicated that he won’t be slow to make substitutions tonight as and when the game demands them, so the fleet-footed Celtic winger can also confidently expect to see some action, especially if Ireland are badly in need of a goal.
The only other big selection issue for Trapattoni revolved around the fitness of Sean St Ledger but the defender, who had been nursing a knee injury, successfully came through last night’s training session on what looks like a worryingly hard and bare surface in the heat-scorched national stadium.
However, Trapattoni will still be anxious to see if the Preston centre-half suffers any reaction this morning and, in the unlikely event that he has to be ruled out, John O’Shea would revert to centre-half alongside Richard Dunne, with Stephen Kelly — despite his abject lack of game time at Fulham — having to come in at right-full.
A key message which Trapattoni has been driving home to his players is that they can’t afford the kind of complacency which yielded the initiative to Australia in last month’s disappointing friendly in Australia. The manager is also concerned that his charges are fully alive to the Cypriots’ attacking threat, especially on the break, and to that end will this morning once again sit them down in front of a DVD of their opponents’ agonisingly narrow 2-1 loss to Italy in their very first game in the group.
“We have seen it before but we will review it again,” said the manager. “Cyprus played well in that game and deserved to win. Only a great performance by Buffon stopped them. They had two or three big chances before Di Natale scored for Italy. We will need to begin against them with 100% concentration and we must be careful about those little mistakes. I was unhappy with the Australian game because we played well before allowing them to score. Eventually they deserved to win. But we must begin again with this lesson.”
Trapattoni insists that, with creative attacking players of the calibre of Ioannis Okkas and Efstathios Aloneftis on board, Cyprus are still a force to be reckoned with, even as he acknowledges that they will miss the goal prowess of the suspended Michael Constantinou, who scored twice in the 5-2 rout in 2006 and has already bagged three for his country in the current group.
Richard Dunne, one of five Irish survivors of that game in tonight’s side, is also relieved that the striker will be absent.
“The big centre forward? That’s good,” he smiled when told the news. “He’s a really good player. And, one of those players who is very experienced, he knows how to play the games and play referees. It’s a bonus for us that he’s missing, yeah.”
The Cypriots are just as concerned, however, about frailties at the back where their goalkeeping options are limited in the absence of Antonis Georgallides who was between the posts when Ireland beat them by just a single goal in Croke Park.
Still, skipper Okkas remains upbeat.
“Obviously, Ireland want to come here to win but if they have any memories that they want to erase then that is their business,” he was quoted as saying in the local press yesterday. “We have our own targets — mathematically we are still not out of the qualification race — and we hope to have a good evening with the Irish players.”
His opposite number, of course, is hoping for precisely the opposite.
“The last time here was just one game,” Robbie pointed out. “Most of the time, we beat them. We are not going out to get revenge, we are going out to help us qualify for the World Cup finals. Yes, we’ve got a lot of history with Cyprus but this is a massive game and a win would set us up nicely for the rest of the group.”
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