Robbie Keane hopes to give Irish fans in America something to cheer about
Derby County duo Jeff Hendrick and Conor Sammon start for the Republic of Ireland against Spain in New York
If the Spanish and Irish players needed any reminder of the last time they met, they only had to look at the New York skyline yesterday. The rain was incessant, just as it was when the sides last met in Gdansk during the European Championships. Spain were on their way towards confirming their greatness during that night’s 4-0 victory while the Republic of Ireland, it was clear, had reached an end point of one kind or another.
Yesterday, Giovanni Trapattoni reiterated his belief in the importance of playing against a marquee side while expressing the hope that they can come through tonight’s encounter in Yankee Stadium without a final score which wouldn’t look out of place on the big baseball scoreboard.
“I think if we could repeat the European Championships without this great heavy weight on our shoulders and without one or two silly mistakes . . . I think we can repeat this game and not suffer against Spain. Every 90 minutes before then we had trust and confidence in the team. There was some anxiety but it is important that we start with a new mentality,” said the Italian who gives a first start to Derby County’s Jeff Hendrick.
The Spanish are using this match as a final test before they travel to Brazil to take part in the Confederations Cup.
As ever, Vicente del Bosque remains loyal to his belief in constantly fine-tuning a side that has looked irresistible over the past couple of seasons and declining to name a starting eleven against Ireland, he promised only to continue with as much rotation as possible. Iker Casillas is the latest player to publicly fret about his wish to return to the team after a five-month lay-off through injury.
“We are using these matches to look at the three goalkeepers,” said the unflappable Del Bosque. “All three are in good form although there is one with less playing time lately than the others. To me, Iker is fine. Our goal is to have Victor Valdes play tomorrow and by then to have all 23 players see action in these games. Against Haiti we used two strikers – Torres and Soldado. Tomorrow we are going go use Villa up front.”
The brief visit to New York gives the Spanish players some respite from the constant scrutiny to which they are accustomed at club and international level. Their 2-1 win over the Haitians in Miami was a prelude to this encounter against the Irish.
“Well I think we are trying to keep our form from our league games with our clubs so we need games,” said Gerard Pique. “I think the game against Haiti was a good game to try some aspects and we can continue to try and play different keepers and strikers to find the best team we can. It is a good national team, with strikers like Robbie Keane, who has had a good international career and we hope we can win it.”
For Keane, this is something of a home game: he has just signed a further two-year contract with LA Galaxy and said he wasn’t missing playing in the English league.
“Going back to who? You are just playing for the sake of playing and making up the numbers unless you are playing for Manchester United or Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool,” said Keane.
His continued involvement with Ireland has enabled him to meet the best of European opposition. As Keane observed yesterday, the Irish are expecting a resumption of the effortless and intricate passing patterns with which the Spaniards have humbled the field. “You can play Spain in a phone box and they could still keep the ball from you,” he conceded. “I don’t think it really matters to them: big pitch, small pitch, they are going to keep the ball.”
Alluding to the chastening defeats by Croatia and Spain in the European Championships, Keane echoed Trapattoni’s sentiments that those heavy defeats were an inexplicable departure from the parsimonious form which enabled the Irish to qualify.
“It was difficult for everyone because of the manner in which we were beaten by teams whereas in the past, that has never been the case. The way we set our stall out to play against these teams and how we are always a very, very hard team to beat, for whatever reason at the Euros, it just didn’t happen for us. In saying that, we were playing against the two finalists, Italy and Spain . . . and they got to the final.”
Tonight, though, Spain will continue to probe and experiment. Even without Xabi Alonso, the Spanish have options, as del Bosque outlined. “We have a team that can either be more offensive or more defensive, based on what we choose, Overall we will likely follow the same formula tomorrow that we used against Haiti, in particular with Javi Martinez in the middle and Santi Carzola as an attacker. It is a formula that we believe in.”
The game is understandably a low-key affair but Keane was optimistic that the New York Irish would turn out in force – despite the forecast of more rain. “There are a lot of Irish in New York and hopefully we will have a good crowd and give them something to shout about,” said Keane, who will partner another Derby County player up front, Conor Sammon.