All eyes on Ronaldo as Ireland prepare to face Portugal in Meadowlands

50,000 locals are expected to show up for what promises to be a lively encounter

David Meyler and Wes Hoolahan during the Republic of Ireland’s squad training session in the New York Red Bull ground yesterday morning. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

David Meyler and Wes Hoolahan during the Republic of Ireland’s squad training session in the New York Red Bull ground yesterday morning. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


Maybe not quite the intoxicating scenes of 20 summers ago when the Irish and the Italians met on a famous World Cup afternoon in June but at least 50,000 locals are expected to show up at the Metlife Stadium in Meadowlands to see what promises to be a lively encounter between the Republic of Ireland and Portugal.

The intrigue as to whether Cristiano Ronaldo will appear on the field tonight remains heavy, with guarded hints emerging from the Portuguese training camp that he won’t start but will come in at some stage. The Irish team trained in the New York Red Bull ground yesterday morning and on a foggy lunchtime in Jersey, Martin O’Neill smiled when asked by a visiting journalist what he would do to counter the threat that Real Madrid star poses.

“Do you want that in Portuguese? Well, in any language . . . it is very difficult to stop him. He is absolutely superb . . . Just when Messi looked as if he was streets ahead of people, it would have to be Ronaldo stepping up to the mark being the showman that he is. But it is interesting because . . . he has this image that he likes to get the shirt off and stuff. He is a magnificent player. But I asked Roy Keane about him. And Roy has the highest opinion of him both as a player and as a person as well. He said he is a great person. So I am passing that on. And if the message ever gets to him, tell him that Roy Keane still holds him in fantastic regard. I think that he would!”

Robbie Keane revealed that he had voted for Ronaldo as Fifa player of the year but shook his head when he considered the merits of the Portuguese icon and Lionel Messi, with whom he has been vying for individual supremacy.

‘Little dip’

“I mean . . . come on? Messi just had a little dip . . . he only scored 50 goals last year was it? But I think Ronaldo in the last two years has stepped up and he seems to be getting better if that is possible. He has been a joy to watch and I have really enjoyed watching Real Madrid this year. With Gareth Bale there as well, I have a bit of an interest there having played with him at Spurs and would hate to come up against those two week in and week out,” said Keane.

“Messi seems a quiet lad whereas Ronaldo is the full package. But you couldn’t pick between them. Himself and Messi are clearly the two best players in the world. Every player wants to play against the best in the world so we hope he does play.”

Paulo Bento, Portugal’s manager, has refused to confirm whether he will play Ronaldo. However, having missed Portugal’s previous two warm-up matches through injury – they were underwhelming in a 0-0 draw against Greece in Portugal and were fortunate to cobble together a 1-0 win against Mexico in Boston on Friday night – it is believed that he may play some part.

Tonight’s encounter is a dress-rehearsal for Portugal ahead of their opening World Cup match against Germany on June 16th, a critical game between the two heavyweight nations in Group C. Defender Pepe will almost certainly not feature: both he and seasoned midfielder Raul Meireles trained separately to the squad on Sunday and are likely to undergo further rehabilitation before the tournament begins.

The arrival of Stephen Ward enhances Martin O’Neill’s somewhat sparse defensive wardrobe and the main injury worries are Shane Duffy and Shane Long. New York Red Bull goalkeeper Ryan Meara, who grew up in Yonkers and is eligible to play for Ireland through his grandparents, trained with the Irish yesterday. The 23-year-old had received a call-up from Noel King two years ago but it was blocked by his club.

‘Mentioned him’

“We had heard about him . . . Steve Guppy obviously keeps an eye on the MLS and he had mentioned him. Seamus had known about him too so we just thought it was an opportunity as were training there that he would come and meet us. I think he enjoyed it. He had a training session this morning with the senior team and Andy Roxburgh, the senior manager, just came over to say thanks for that,” said O’Neill.

Roy Keane’s consistently low profile has done little to quash rumours that he will be involved with Aston Villa next season. O’Neill has been quizzed on Keane throughout this summer series and peered over his spectacles when asked to confirm again that he believes that Roy is staying put.

“Very much so. That has always been my view. I think you all think I make it up as I go along. From day one he has been excellent around the players. He has added little bits here. He has only recently retired so he is still an iconic figure and players would relate to him. All of those things are great. Do I expect him to blow up some day? Of course. We can deal with all that. And if he blows up to often then we will bomb him out,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill will travel on to Brazil for the World Cup next weekend and believes that the summer tour was everything he could have hoped for.

“Almost from every aspect it has been a really terrific trip.”

A win – and the sight of Ronaldo menacing the Irish defence – would make for a prefect anniversary salute to Ireland’s most famous football day.

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