Belfast Telegraph

Trapattoni's midfield change yields results for Republic

By Daniel McDonnell

Serbia 0 Republic of Ireland 0: An interesting bore draw. It may sound like an oxymoron, but the intrigue is drawn from the possible implications.

In a week where Shay Given caught Giovanni Trapattoni by surprise, the Republic of Ireland manager had a trick up his sleeve.

He finally changed his system, a notable shift at a time when serious questions were being asked about the future of this team, and not just with respect to the identity of the personnel.

It turns out, after all, that a souring experience in Poland has forced the veteran into a rethink, despite what he may have said in the preliminaries.

Finally, he operated with three men in central midfield and, while August friendlies are often played at a pace that can mislead, this was a competent showing. And, in a week of goalkeeper chat, the measured contribution of Keiren Westwood also gladdened the 73-year-old's heart.

Four years ago, in the Republic's last proper away friendly in Norway, Trapattoni deployed a strategy that set the tone for a World Cup campaign. In three weeks' time, we will find out if this will be the modus operandi for the attempt to reach the next finals in Brazil.

"We will see," he said, with a smile.

The Serbs also came to have a look at their next generation ahead of the World Cup qualifiers. Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic has confidently predicted they will make it to Brazil in 2014, so the locals wanted a performance to back up that statement. After missing out on the Euros, they've had a long build-up to the serious business, and this fixture represented the final leg. It didn't exactly go to plan, with a sparse crowd voicing displeasure at the final whistle.

Music to the ears of Trapattoni.

A disputed calf injury suffered by Shane Long had prevented him from fielding his chosen starting XI but the real change from the press conference was his team's tactical make-up.

The Italian had named his selection in a 4-4-2 formation, yet when they lined up at kick-off, it was clear this was something different. James McClean had tweeted earlier in the day about being selected in central midfield, a suggestion which many presumed to be a wind-up of some kind.

But he was telling the truth. The Sunderland lad was located centrally in what was effectively a 4-1-4-1 formation -- or a hybrid 4-3-3/4-5-1 in old money -- with Glenn Whelan in front of the back four, McClean next to James McCarthy, and Aiden McGeady and Simon Cox in wide roles. Stoke's Jonathan Walters ploughed a lone furrow up top. "It was important to try something different," said Trapattoni.

The players have advocated such a change for some time, with Whelan particularly vocal in Poland. Against a Serbian team that was expected to own the ball, an extra white shirt in the engine was intended to counter numerical dominance. And, in the early stages, it worked. Ireland were less rigid than normal, with both McGeady and Cox tucking inside where necessary and Walters providing a useful outlet. What the formation also allows is the full-backs to be more adventurous.

In hindsight, it makes sense that Trapattoni spoke of introducing Seamus Coleman into defence for this fixture. Alas, when Coleman was sent into the fray with 10 minutes remaining, right wing was his destination. Full-backs Stephen Kelly and the all-action Paul McShane didn't exactly lend themselves to the system, but they had their moments in the opposition half.

While Ireland were trying something different, their first chance came from a direct route, a punt forward that the Serbs misjudged and the marauding Walters was brought to the ground by Milan Bisevac outside the area.

In a competitive match, the ref might have dished out more than a yellow. McClean's subsequent free was blocked.

At the other end, Westwood, who went through his usual pre-match ritual of saying a prayer under a towel, started in assured manner aside from a ponderous reaction to a Serbian garryowen which he resolved with competent kicking. His shot-stopping was also tested when he reacted well to a deflected Aleksandar Kolarov effort.

He was more popular in the stadium than his Serbian counterpart Vladimir Stojkovic who, as a Partizan Belgrade player, was booed throughout by the Red Star supporters present. Indeed, the whistles that accompanied his longest spell on the ball led to a hurried clearance, and with the goal gaping Whelan tried his luck from 45 yards. Stojkovic got back in time to retrieve the situation. However, he had Bisevac to thank for Ireland's best moment of the half, with the impressive Cox slotting in Walters whose right footer was intercepted by the outstretched leg of the PSG centre-half.

The natives responded with a decent spell, and Trapattoni responded by shuffling the deck, with McClean re-deployed on the left wing, McGeady switching to the right, and Cox dropping inside next to McCarthy.

Still, it didn't stop ex-Manchester United striker Zoran Tosic twisting and turning his way into the box before Darren O'Dea brought his advance to an end with an expert tackle.

While Mihajlovic made a couple of changes at the interval, Trapattoni waited until the hour mark for his first replacement, with Paul Green slotting in for Whelan in a like-for-like arrangement that doubtless suited Tony Pulis.

The maintenance of the revised system indicated the manager's satisfaction, with McClean better suited to the second version, as demonstrated with a direct run and cross that McGeady might have converted. The latter was causing the Serbs some difficulty and brought another save from Stojkovic, but in a game where the tempo fluctuated, the hosts also had fleeting moments of promise which interceptions from O'Dea and Cox halted.

Westwood was eventually called into action, however, and delivered the save of the night with 20 minutes remaining. The volume levels raised as Zdravko Kuzmanovic stood over a free-kick at the edge of the box. His daisycutter escaped the wall, and the Sunderland 'keeper reacted with a fine save. "I was sure he could be a good substitute for Shay. He showed us in this moment, that we can trust him," said Trapattoni.

That was the end of the limited entertainment, with Joey O'Brien and Coleman brought in for a final 10 minutes which was more about the maintenance of shape than seeking a winner.

A year on from a scoreless draw with Croatia, this jaunt to visit their neighbours has delivered more reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Irish Independent


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