With Shay Given gone and uncertainty still surrounding the international futures of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne, tonight’s friendly against Serbia at Red Star Belgrade’s Marakana Stadium might offer a glimpse of a different future for Ireland.
But, while the starting line-up is novel, the formation — at least at the start — will be entirely familiar, Giovanni Trapattoni opting for a 4-4-2 deployment of Keiren Westwood, Paul McShane, John O’Shea, Darren O’Dea and Stephen Kelly across the back, Aiden McGeady, James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan and James McClean across the middle, and Jon Walters and Shane Long upfront.
“This friendly is a good opportunity to see some of the new players and to give them a chance to prove that they can be part of the national team,” said the manager yesterday.
“I don’t expect a great performance nor a beautiful match because players are just starting the season at their clubs. But maybe we can try a little different situation on the pitch and so it’s a chance for the players to show their tactical flexibility.”
Not for the first time this week, there was confusion about the futures of some of those “experienced players” who are missing for tonight’s game. Having appeared to confirm as recently as Sunday that Given, Keane, Dunne and Duff would all be available for the World Cup campaign, Trapattoni saw his goal-posts shift the very next day with Given’s sudden announcement of his international retirement.
“He spoke with me first,” the manager was at pains to point out in Belgrade. “When we left this older group in Poland, we said to them they could stay at home for this friendly. All agreed with me. Only yesterday, he called me and said ‘Mister I wish to speak with you, I reflected a lot and I wish to give time to my club and my new manager. I will be always available if you need me in an emergency’. That is good because our approach has always been clear with him.”
Yet, clarity is still lacking when it comes to Trapattoni’s understanding of the intentions of Given’s three senior colleagues, with the manager even revealing his most recent attempt to contact Keane had yet to produce a response. However, one thing we did learn yesterday is that, despite Trapattoni recently expressing hope to the contrary, Dunne is definitely out of next month’s Kazakhstan game with a groin problem. Trapattoni said: “Richard sent me a message saying he would not be ready for the game with Kazakhstan because he needs a few weeks to recover from his injury, that the game was too soon. I answered him and said after this friendly, after he has recovered from his injury, we would review the situation, but I’ve told him we need him, it’s true. He will let us know.
“As for Robbie, I’ve also sent him a text, but he’s not answered me. I’ve checked my mobile. I will speak with him before I announce my next squad. He needs to tell me whether he wants to come back or what he wants to do. We can decide after this game because it’s important for us to look at the other players. We have [Shane] Long, [Simon] Cox and [Jon] Walters. After this game, and before the one with Kazakhstan, we can think about this situation.”
The sense that tonight’s game in the Belgrade Marakana could come to be seen in retrospect as an initial stepping stone on the long and doubtless road to the Rio Maracana, will not be lost in particular on the man whose job it is to fill Given’s gloves, Keiren Westwood.
The keeper’s Sunderland team-mate John O’Shea, who skippers Ireland tonight, said: “Shay has made his decision and we have to get on with. He’s a fantastic lad, a great personality and he was always someone to rely on when the defence was reached. He rescued us a lot of times. Now Keiren has the number one slot for this game and I know close-hand how well he’s been performing. He hasn’t let Ireland down in the past either so fingers crossed he’ll fill the void more than comfortably”
However, both Given and O’Shea yesterday stressed the importance to his long-term international prospects of Westwood winning the tough battle at Sunderland with Simon Mignolet for the first-choice keeper role. As O’Shea put it: “He knows that if he’s going to be number one for Ireland he needs to be number one for his club.”
Meanwhile, Serbia manager Sinisa Mihajlovic is viewing tonight’s friendly as a perfect dress rehearsal for his team’s World Cup qualifying games against Wales and Scotland, with Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea and Aleksandar Kolarov of Manchester back in harmony after their red card clash in the Community Shield. Under a picture in a local paper yesterday of both men smiling, Kolarov was quoted as saying: “I don’t hold any grudges against Branislav — I forgive him. I have forgotten about it already.”
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Westwood(Sunderland); McShane (Hull City), O’Shea (Sunderland), O’Dea (Toronto), Kelly (Fulham); McDeady (Spartak Moscow), McCarthy (Wigan Athletic), Whelan (Stoke City), McClean (Sunderland); Walters (Stoke City), Long (West Brom).
SERBIA (PROBABLE): Stojkovic (Partizan); Ivanovic (Chelsea), Subotic (Borussia Dortmund), Bisevac (PSG), Kolarov (Manchester City); Basta (Udinese), Kuzmanovic (Stuttgart), Ignjovski (Werder Bremen); Tosic (CSKA Moscow), Tadic (FC Twente), Lekic (Genclerbirligi).
Referee: Alexandru Dan Tudor (Romania).
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