Ireland have the form but England have the star quality
Trapattoni and Keane believe win is possible but but insist qualifier against Faroe Islands is the main priority
Robbie Keane admits he can barely remember the last completed game between England and Republic of Ireland in Wembley 22 years ago, and if he can’t then there’s not much hope for the rest of Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad. Still, those who have read the books or simply listened to the tales of their predecessors are likely to have some sense of what they’re getting into.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of some post-colonial inferiority complex but Irish football is defined to some extent by its encounters with the English. Nearly all of our leading players play there, of course, but a seriously disproportionate number of our most celebrated success stories involve games against our close neighbours and oldest rivals.
And, while 1949 and ‘88 enjoy a predictably exalted status, only a modest proportion of the games in question involve actual Irish wins. Certainly tonight’s game, where a crowd of around 80,000 is expected, need not necessarily produce one in order to be remembered fondly.
It must seem a little bizarre to the current generation, however, that as they finally get a chance to participate in such a coveted occasion they are being cautioned not to give their all.
The Faroe Islands are around the corner, both manager and captain warned at Wembley yesterday, although if tonight’s encounter has even half the intensity of those other memorable games, then they can be sure they are wasting their breath.
Pacify his players
Of course, the World Cup qualifier on Friday week has to be the priority but pride and the parade of leading Premier League stars wearing England shirts are certain to have an effect.
Trapattoni suggests that the particular status of the friendly means his role will change slightly with the Italian admitting that he will have to pacify his players rather than pump them up. The absence of Anothony Pilkington has at least freed him of the requirement to stand by his commitment to reshape his side.
“We need to start with a strong, balanced team,” said the Italian shortly after he named very much the one that would have been expected once it became clear that Marc Wilson’s calf strain was going to keep him out.
Stephen Kelly comes in for Wilson to make, like Seán St Ledger, his first international start since the game against Oman at Fulham last September and, more significantly, since he exchanged stern words with Trapattoni at the start of this year.
Glenn Whelan is passed fit and so partners James McCarthy in central midfield while Jon Walters again starts on the right side of midfield. Robbie Keane, meanwhile, starts alongside Shane Long up front although nobody expects him to last the 90 minutes.
Fresh legs are likely to be required all over the pitch against an England team that while depleted contains some pace and a fair bit of attacking potential in most areas of the pitch. Certainly their likely lone striker, Daniel Sturridge, has the capacity to cause John O’Shea and St Ledger serious problems.
However, of more concern from an Irish perspective may be midfield where England’s numerical advantage – never mind the fact that it is the likes of Frank Lampard, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wayne Rooney who will be making up those numbers – suggests Trapattoni’s men may struggle.
The Italian, in any case, is undeterred. “It will be a good test for our players,” he said, “and important for them to learn that it is possible to get a result against a stronger team . . . and England are a strong tram.
“It’s a friendly game but a great opportunity to show against a great team how we can play football. But I don’t want to put more pressure on the players because they’re already a little tense and worried.
“The important thing is for them to play in the game without fear. If you up the pressure it is like the ball is on fire so I have to provide trust and reassurance.
“Our aim (in any case) is to win against the Faroes and we must remember that. All of the players have had a tough season and many of those who will start the game I have to preserve for the game against the Faroes but I think with six changes I can do that.”
The players themselves, Keane chipped in, will have to be “clever” about it. The Irish skipper acknowledged that “on paper” there may appear to be a gulf in class between the two sides but he scoffed at the idea that an Irish win would be “a major shock”. More a pleasant surprise, seems to be the prevailing attitude.
If such ancient history as our “recent” record against the English is worth anything, then he and his team-mates can at least take some encouragement from the fact that they are unbeaten in the last four encounters that actually made it all the way through to the final whistle.
More pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that England’s three most recent home friendlies have produced wins over Brazil, Italy and Belgium; all ranked in the world’s top 20.
England are clearly favourites to extend the run but if the current crop of Irish internationals understand the dynamics of these games at all, they will know that when things do go well, that’s half the fun.