Sunday, February 8, 2009

Revitalised Irish will have too much for Georgia

With his top players now more settled in their club roles, Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni can look forward to making a bold statement in Group 8 on Wednesday night.

Buried deep under the avalanche of Irish transfer speculation over the last 10 days was the news that Bulgaria have appointed a new manager. Forty-one year old Stanimir Stoilov, a defender in his playing days, was in charge of Levski Sofia when they became the first Bulgarian club to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League back in 2006/07 and his appointment even forced Dimitar Berbatov to lift his head from his Old Trafford bubble long enough to mumble a few words of congratulations.

On Wednesday, though, Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland have an opportunity, at least in part, to render their reorganisation worthless. Should Ireland beat Georgia at Croke Park, they will open up a seven-point lead over Stoilov's side with a game more played. That would set up the enticing scenario of Ireland playing for a 10-point advantage over their Group 8 rivals when Bulgaria come to Dublin at the end of March.

All that, however, is putting the cart 100 paces in front of the horse. One of the great clichés of our time is that – wait for it – there are no easy games in international football but in this group, the words hold some resonance.

In the 10 games played so far, no team has scored more than two goals in any game and only once, in Italy's 2-0 win over Georgia, has the victor won by more than one clear goal. Proceedings are tight, all the more so as Georgia have improved since their 2-1 defeat to Ireland in Mainz last September.

Aside from that defeat to Italy, they've drawn 1-1 with Cyprus and held Bulgaria scoreless in Tbilisi. Indeed, they would have won that game had David Siradze's header hit the net rather than the bar at the death. The disorganised and disorientated side that Ireland faced in Germany have been beaten gradually into shape by Hector Cuper in the past six months.

That improvement, according to Marco Tardelli, means patience will be a important virtue on Wednesday night. "It is a match where it will be very important to get the public behind us. The fans will have to bear with us for the 90 minutes. It is very important that the team maintains its balance on the pitch. There will be a temptation to rush forward but there is no point in rushing forward and destroying the balance of the side."

Talk about singing from the same hymn sheet. Trapattoni must have loved physics as a child such is his present day devotion to this Irish team's equilibrium and in essence, he only has two of its constituent parts to ponder over in the next few days. The side picks itself bar right-back and Glenn Whelan's partner in central midfield. In defence, with Paul McShane and Steve Finnan both expected to miss the game, the manager will have to choose between Stoke City's Stephen Kelly and the ultra consistent Kevin Foley of Wolves. One is short of match practice, the other international experience, but both are capable of doing a job.

In midfield, Trapattoni has a straight choice between Keith Andrews and Darron Gibson. "Against Cyprus, Gibson had a much better second half than first half," he says. "After 20 minutes he was a little bit lost. Andrews has power. I saw him against Newcastle and he played with a mixture of experience, power and creativity. I want midfield players who can combine the three." That would indicate that Andrews will get the nod and if he does, the decision would hold a certain logic. He's played in seven of nine games since Sam Allardyce took charge – he was rested for the two FA Cup games against Sunderland – and if he's deemed good enough to stand in for Steven Reid at club level, there's no reason why he can't fulfil the same role at international level.

Those choices made, and any potential injuries this weekend aside, Trapattoni has a bunch of confident footballers to work with. Shay Given and Robbie Keane are likely to be high on the adrenalin buzz of moving clubs, while John O'Shea is currently playing a significant role in a record-breaking Manchester United defence. Aiden McGeady, after the tantrums of December, has started Celtic's last four games and Damien Duff, on the evidence of last week's hectic game against Sunderland, is back close to his twinkled-toed best on the wing. In fact, about the only player in the projected starting eleven who hasn't done something positive in recent weeks is Richard Dunne. We can only hope that the memory of how to defend well comes back to him soon but in truth, he and his fellow defenders are unlikely to be fighting fires all night long.

Theirs should be a watching brief, minding the house with the help of two sitting midfielders while Ireland's four attacking players attempt to storm the Georgian citadel. Let's hope that the quartet is enough to do the damage.

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