WHAT a difference a game makes.
Rarely has one defeat left so many questions hanging accusingly over an Irish side as last Friday’s against Russia and no department of the team or management has been left undisturbed by the many probes launched since.
Formation, playing style and personnel have all been hauled under the spotlight for examination after a deeply disturbing night in Ballsbridge when the positive endorphins generated by two wins from two in Group B were flushed from the collective system.
Central to all three debates, literally and figuratively, is the side’s engine room.
Glenn Whelan and Paul Green were the men charged with stoking the furnace four days ago but it is hard to envisage a different scenario had it been Darron Gibson and/or Keith Andrews instead.
All four have yet to convince as individuals or combinations at international level but the two starters on this occasion were afforded an impossible task in that they were outnumbered by a five-man Russian midfield that played some sublime and intricate passing football.
Throw in two adventurous full-backs and the stage was set.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s reliance on 4-4-2 and his refusal to abandon it when Ireland began to be overrun by the army of red shirts has been heavily criticised but the Italian has not been one for dramatic alterations during his time in charge.
It remains to be seen how this evening’s fixture in Zilina works out but Whelan believes important lessons have been learnt regardless of whether or not Ireland seek to embrace more fashionable formations in the future.
“If we play 4-4-2 against a team that’s playing 4-5-1 then we can’t be as open,” said the Stoke City midfielder who played 66 minutes despite an ongoing hamstring injury before being replaced by Gibson.
“If that’s the case then we don’t concede the goals that we did. If it’s a case where he tries to change it and match them by playing 4-5-1 then we go from there because we were too open and that’s the way it was.”
Ireland aren’t helped by the fact that four of their starters last week – Whelan among them – were limbering up for an all-too-rare competitive start having spent the majority of game days since the start of the new season sporting tracksuits.
The same number are earning a living in the less prestigious surrounds of the nPower Championship while two other frequenters of the second tier – Shane Long and Andy Keogh – are back-up for the injured Kevin Doyle today. Doyle has developed his all-round game to an admirable degree since he first made the move to England from Cork City but it is his ability to compete in the air and establish an attacking platform high up the pitch that has been most obvious in this campaign.
In their three games so far Ireland have established a regular flight path from the boot of Shay Given or one of his central defenders through to the air space in and around the Wexford man in a manner that would make Jack Charlton wistful. It has been a depressing regression after the back end of the last qualifying campaign when the side demonstrated an ability to play smart passing football along the floor and even Richard Dunne has lamented the reliance on route one fare.
“It’s different when you’ve got five in the middle to try and get on the ball and move it about but it’s something that we wanted to do and we just couldn’t do it,” said Whelan of the Russian defeat. “Then we got ourselves into a little bit of panic stations. The fact that we did go 2-0 down so early means that we did lump it a lot more to Kevin and Robbie which obviously didn’t work.”
It was no preconceived plan, Whelan insisted. They may have been outnumbered in midfield but he accepted that there was an onus on himself and Green to get on the ball more and he held his hand up by admitting that last Friday had not been his finest hour in an Irish shirt.
Russia may have been exceptional but the defeat has left a previously impenetrable Irish 11 peering anxiously over their shoulders.
If there has been one word bandied about the camp more than any other this week it has been pride. Trapattoni asked for it at half-time last Friday, Marco Tardelli mentioned it time and again on Sunday and Whelan admits that the side’s has been badly dented. In that sense, they are no different to today’s opponents whose own unbeaten start to the campaign was halted surprisingly against Armenia but, whatever about Slovakia, Whelan insists Ireland’s self-belief remains as strong as ever. “It’s still the same as before the campaign kicked off. We want to qualify. It’s a disappointment that we got beaten on Friday but when did we last get beaten in a qualifying game under Trapattoni? These things are going to happen.
“You’re going to get beaten some time and it’s about how you react. Hopefully (today) is going to be different and we’ve been talking about something different.”
A nation awaits.
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