Belfast Telegraph

Jokes stop here for Trapattoni

The protracted build-up to the real business of Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure as Ireland's manager may be drawing to a close but, for now at least, there is time for laughter.

It was an exchange between a Norwegian journalist and Robbie Keane that provided the gold medal moment in the field of jocularity yesterday.

Out of the blue, the local completely flummoxed the Irish captain by revealing that former Blackburn and Manchester United defender Henning Berg had described the Dubliner as the most difficult striker that he had ever played against.

"Yes, even better than Thierry Henry", added the hack as if to emphasise the surprise element, while Keane looked slightly taken aback before responding with a grin: "Was he drunk?"

Loud laughter reverberated around the room. When the comment was explained to Trap, he grinned as well. Robbie had already made a quip about his relief that the media would be safe now the trip to Georgia was off and that went down a treat.

They'll be selling tickets next. Heck, there was even a comedian, Karl Spain, in the audience at the pre-match press conference yesterday, enjoying the material from the top table.

The honeymoon period of the new regime has been filled with belly-aching laughs but the reality is that the joking really stops now.

Sure, the result in tonight's friendly with Norway at the Ullevaal Stadium may not matter too much but with a relatively clean bill of health the performance of the Irish team and, crucially, the manner in which they adapt to the system preferred by their manager will be very significant indeed.

From his chosen starting line-up, we can draw some early conclusions. At the moment, he clearly feels that if he is to use Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady as attacking wingers, then his central midfield pair will have to be more defensively minded than Andy Reid.

Therefore, Steven Reid and Glenn Whelan get the nod although the former will have a test on his injured knee this morning to see if he can take his place.

If not, Liam Miller steps in to renew the partnership with Whelan that was selected for May's jousts with Serbia and Colombia.

When asked about the omission of Sunderland's Reid, Trapattoni indicated that he didn't want to make too many changes from the Colombia game, with Steve Finnan and Kevin Kilbane already returning as full backs, so another switch or two would have been bordering on wholesale.

In that respect, you could argue that Reid has suffered from missing May's get-together.

Nevertheless, the indications that the playmaker's best chance of a regular starting XI place away from home is by displacing Kevin Doyle and playing off Keane do not look far off the mark.

"We have enough offensive players already, like Robbie, like Doyle, like Duff, like McGeady, Hunt and Keogh," said Trapattoni.

"All the strong teams in the world, in Europe, the midfield players are very strong. They can work hard, they can play, they can support strikers. We need strong players in midfield and this is why I think about Steven Reid."

For Andy, though, it seems a trifle unfair given his superior status at the Stadium of Light to a player like Miller.

In a training match on Monday, he was part of what is effectively the reserve side but was threading through passes with such regularity that, at one point, Liam Brady roared across the park: "Andy Reid, different class."

Alas, it is the pace and trickery of his wide men that the boss is relying on for his midfield creativity with the more languid talents of Reid sacrificed. A curious decision, perhaps, when he is arguably Ireland's best passer in an era where the inability to maintain possession is consistently bemoaned.

Of course, it is further forward and to Keane that Trap will look for the more dexterous type of innovation.

The summer mover spent a fair portion of yesterday batting away questions from Sky about life at Liverpool, his partnership with Fernando Torres and many other things with a dim relevance to Ireland.

When it came to discussing the merits of his international colleagues, he did offer the assessment that this is the strongest bunch since the one that made it to the World Cup in 2002.

"It's up there with the strongest we've had in my time. It's certainly as strong as it has been in the past five years. You look around the squad and there's a lot of quality, a lot of players in the Premier League, which is great," he said.

"I think we have a good chance of making it to the World Cup. Yes, it's a tough group but we have a chance as much as everyone else."

Yet when it boils down to it, Keane is conscious of the widespread belief that it's the senior players such as himself who have let Ireland down in recent campaigns.

Certainly, injuries have not helped and it will be interesting to see how Ireland behave as an attacking force now that they have a fully fit Duff and McGeady on either flank, which may take some of the burden off Keane and provide him with better service.

Nevertheless, leaving all those asterisks to one side, the fact that the manager is an experienced one means there will be less understanding towards the players if they underwhelm on this adventure.

"I don't think there was any excuses before", suggested Keane. "It just hasn't been good enough, it's as simple as that.

"As players you have to take responsibility, both as an individual and as a team. It's a team game and we have to look after each other. If we don't do that, then we haven't got a chance."

They are pertinent statements that will hopefully be followed up by actions. From here on in, humour will no longer be an acceptable distraction.

Belfast Telegraph


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