THE REPUBLIC of Ireland might be within touching distance of the top of the Group 8 table after Saturday’s late, late show in Nicosia but, anticipating further twists and turns before the campaign is out, Giovanni Trapattoni declines to rate the team’s chances of qualifying for South Africa at anything higher than 50%.
However, he is still eyeing automatic qualification as outright group winners, which is why he hopes that, in Turin on Wednesday, Italy will either lose or be held to a draw by Bulgaria.
Speaking at the squad’s training base in Tipperary ahead of tomorrow’s friendly against South Africa in Thomond Park, the manager explained why, as he sees it, Ireland’s job is as yet only half done, with home games still to come against Italy and Montenegro.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, with the players all fit and in good condition, we beat Italy in Dublin,” he said. “But we are in danger of jinxing ourselves even talking about that because anything can happen, like injury to one of our big players. Italy is Italy and while we can win, it’s important we don’t lose. But with one game still to come after that, we can also make the play-offs. And there the chances are 50% as well, depending on who the opponents are.”
Trapattoni will be in Turin on Wednesday night to watch his compatriots host Bulgaria and, arguing that Ireland can stay ahead of the latter, says he is not concerned that a win for the Bulgarians would bring them right back into the qualification race.
“I’m not afraid,” he said. “Ten months ago I said that qualification is like a long arm-wrestle. And we have a strong group with Bulgaria, Montenegro and Italy. It’s not easy. But I am positive because even on Saturday in Nicosia when the team was suffering, they had a good reaction, a good mentality, a confidence that they would recover the result.”
In the immediate aftermath of that anxious and narrow 2-1 win, Trapattoni conceded that the performance had been Ireland’s worst on the road in the current qualification campaign. Although, when told Cypriot boss Angelos Anastasiadis had described the Irish as no better organised than they had been in the 5-2 drubbing three years ago – “A very bad team, they just played high balls,” he complained – Trapattoni was nonplussed. “I respect his opinion but also yesterday I saw once again the 5-2,” he told the post-match press conference, before words failed him and he resorted to pulling a face to convey the madness of it all. However, back in Ireland a day later, Trapattoni had some fresh reflections on Ireland’s performance at the same venue at the weekend.
“After the game, people said that it was not a great spectacle and I agree. But, in life, there are games where the result is more important than the show and this was one of them. Both teams were cautious at the start, afraid to take risks but I will ask my own team why, for 20 minutes of the first half, we lost our conviction. The opponent equalised in that time and it was deserved. But still I remember Shay Given only having to make one big save in the first half.
“In the second half, we had two or three better chances to score and in the end I think we deserved to win because the result was more important than a show of beautiful football.”
Looking ahead to tomorrow’s friendly against South Africa, Trapattoni revealed he has given permission to senior players Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane to withdraw from the squad. For personal reasons, Stephen Hunt has also left the camp early.
This means that neither Given nor Kilbane – who had both stood to win their 99th caps tomorrow – will now be in a position to achieve the magical 100 for the big clash with Italy on October 10. Damien Duff or Kevin Doyle will captain the side at Thomond Park in a game in which Trapattoni will give a run-out to squad members like Liam Lawrence, Andy Keogh, Caleb Folan, Leon Best and Keiren Westwood. And with John O’Shea still in the squad but nursing a minor knock, there may be an opening for Celtic defender Darren O’Dea, currently on loan at Reading, who is a late call-up to the squad.
Ticket sales are slow, with an attendance of only 10,000 projected despite the FAI’s decision to cut prices after just 17,000 watched the Irish lose there to Australia in the 25,000-capacity stadium last month. Trapattoni said he was not surprised by the difficulty selling the game at a time of what he called “world crazy” which his interpreter helpfully translated as the global economic crisis.
The Italian also confessed he found time yesterday to cast an eye over the All-Ireland hurling final, an experience which had him smiling and shaking his head in disbelief, an event he described variously as “incredible”, “a great show”, “a war” and, most memorably, “Boom! Bim! Bam!”.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved