IT’S a pretty safe bet that, as far as Ireland’s World Cup ambitions are concerned, Giovanni Trapattoni will learn more from tonight’s international in Turin than last night’s in Thomond Park.
As seems to be the norm for the energetic 70-year-old, the Italian will be up at the crack of dawn in Limerick this morning to address the press at what, at least for the latter, is the singularly ungodly hour of 7am – all in order that the Irish manager can high-tail it to Dublin to catch the only flight available that will get him to Turin in time to attend tonight’s crucial Group 8 game between Italy and Bulgaria.
Trapattoni knows what he wants out of that game to put the maximum wind into Ireland’s qualification ambitions – preferably a draw and, failing that, a victory for Bulgaria. Either result would leave Ireland with the chance to leapfrog the Italians at the top of the table when the two sides meet in Croke Park next month. A win for the Azzurri tonight, however, and they will extend their advantage to four points before the game in Dublin, a scenario which would take a huge amount of pressure off the visitors.
All of which is likely to be occupying much more space in Trapattoni’s mind after a game which, I think it’s fair to say, will not live too long in his or anyone else’s memory – with perhaps the notable exception of Stoke City’s Liam Lawrence who crowned a drab occasion with an exquisite, postage stamp free-kick. It was an example of the sort of set-piece expertise that Ireland badly needs and, as such, might even be considered something of a mixed blessing for those of us who continue to make the case that Andy Reid is deserving of a place in the squad.
Encouragingly, there was also an impressive half-hour cameo last night from substitute striker Leon Best but, sadly, Eddie Nolan failed to use the opportunity to stake a convincing claim to the left back berth while Stephen Kelly, although rather more involved, was another who at times betrayed his lack of game time with Fulham on the opposite flank.
From the very start, Ireland were on the back foot with most of South Africa’s attacks originating on Nolan’s side but the visitors were unable to make more of the service.
At the other end, after 13 minutes, Caleb Folan had a half-decent penalty shout dismissed when he was barged off the ball by Morgan Gould and in the process sustained a blow to the head which required four stitches before he could retake his place.
That Ireland were down to ten men for nearly ten minutes only served to enhance the impression that the visitors owned the ball, their slick, multi-passing moves forcing the green shirts to defend in depth. Even Kevin Doyle seemed to be spending more time in his own rather than the opposition’s box as, astonishingly, Ireland failed to register even a solitary effort on goal for a full 30 minutes. Yet, it must also be said that, for all South Africa’s dominance of possession, their abject lack of a cutting edge meant that Keiren Westwood barely had to extend himself in the Irish goal as the 11,300 attendance was given little to liven them up, bar the incessant drumming of the Bafana Bafana fans.
All that changed, at least temporarily, in the 34th minute when Caleb Folan’s tenacity in the air and on the ground won Ireland a free kick 25 yards out.
There then followed a booking for Everton’s Steven Pienaar who rashly rushed forward to block Liam Lawrence’s first effort. And with his second attempt, the Stoke man exacted the ultimate revenge, curling his shot beautifully into the top left corner to give Ireland a lead going into the break which was as welcome as it was scarcely deserved.
Trapattoni must have had words during the break because, with Keith Andrews an increasingly influential figure in midfield, there was a good deal more animation about the Irish performance in the second half. But it was the appearance of Leon Best in the 58th minute – bringing Kevin Doyle’s quiet shift as captain to a close – which had the biggest impact.
The Coventry City striker, who turns 23 soon, was immediately involved when, after good initial work by Folan and a clever first-time through ball from Lawrence, he saw his shot on goal saved by Fernandez. Quick to follow up the rebound, Best then kept the pressure on with a neat back heel in the box before the ball fell again for Lawrence whose deflected effort went narrowly wide.
Best’s lively movement and clever and confident touches were a feature of Ireland’s better play thereafter and five minutes from the end, his turn and shot after Andrews had supplied the pass, had Fernandez scrambling to his left to save.
Probably the biggest cheer of the evening was occasioned by the sight of Damien Duff coming off the bench for Andy Keogh with 13 minutes remaining.
Needless to say, the faithful will be expecting to see much more of the Duffer on October 10 in Croke Park when doubtless Giovanni Trapattoni too will be hoping that Ireland’s A-listers put on a rather more inspiring show than this.
Of course, we can also be sure that, first and foremost, the Italian would happily settle for the same result.
Subs for Ireland: O’Dea for McShane, 61; Duff for Keogh, 77; Best for Doyle, 58.
Subs for South Africa: Khenyeza for Van Heerden, 59; Tshabalala for Parker, 63; Henyekane for Mphela, 73; Thwala for Masilela, 77; Ngobeni for Dikgacoi, 80.
Referee: Craig Thomson (Scotland).
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