Slovakia; The first of four games that will decide if Giovanni Trapattoni has completed his mission to turn the Republic of Ireland into worthy performers on the game’s top stage.
A win at Lansdowne Road will put daylight between ourselves and the Slovaks and pitch Ireland in a two-way shoot-out with Russia for automatic qualification. Provided, of course, the team back up the players’ words this week with action.
We seem to recall similar mutterings from the Irish camp ahead of the Russia game at the start of the campaign. Winning at home was vital to top the group, they said. And then the visitors gave us a footballing lesson and beat us out the gate of our own house. Yet, even then, the Irish side displayed something of the resilience Trapattoni has instilled in them by very nearly clawing back level.
Since then Ireland’s progression has been steady if unspectacular but momentum is now building to a crescendo.
Confidence, and more importantly, belief are sky high in the squad and the Republic are on a stunning run of form. While the Croatia game is best forgotten, Ireland have now kept five consecutive clean sheets.
Last season’s Premier League proved something of a war of attrition for many of our crop but the turnaround this year is quite remarkable and many of our players have been red hot since day one of the new campaign.
We are going into the Slovakia game talking the talk but also walking the walk at club level. Can we finally translate that type of performance to an Irish shirt when we have failed in the past?
Shay Given has a new lease of life at Aston Villa and has already put in stand-out displays. He looks like he will play through the pain barrier in the two crucial games ahead. Jon Walters and Kevin Doyle have been on the scoresheet. Stephen Hunt and Stephen Ward have contributed to a pulsating start by Wolves. Ward will line out at left-back in place of Kevin Kilbane after earning the starting berth with recent Irish performances. Damien Duff looks as sharp as he has been in a long while. Shane Long’s move to the Premier League has been a revelation in the opening games with goals against Manchester United and Chelsea.
Our much maligned midfielders are also enjoying game time (except Darren Gibson of course). Glenn Whelan has featured prominently for Stoke while Keith Andrews has been given a break by moving to Ipswich.
Elsewhere, John O’Shea made his debut for Sunderland while Dunne and Given have been honing their international partnership at Villa Park.
Robbie Keane marked his MLS debut with a goal while his form in an Ireland shirt has been prolific recently.
His American adventure seems to have given him an extra spring in his step
On the face of it, Ireland look set to deliver on the big statements they have been making this week.
And yet a word of warning. We have been here before. Ireland have gone into crucial final games backed up by club form. We remember under Brian Kerr a similar rich vein promising an all out assault away to Switzerland when victory would guarantee a play-off. What transpired was one of the most spiritless, gutless, heartless displays by an Irish team and we limped out of Euro 2004.
It was the type of nothing performance Giovanni Trapattoni’s team is easily capable of producing (see Croatia) but to their credit, the Irish have stepped it up when the odds are against them. Recent qualifying history is certainly against them now.
We are in the last lap of the Euro 2012 race and Ireland need to make their break for home at the Aviva Stadium against Slovakia. A win there and the Russia game at the start of the journey will be put down to a false start with the finishing line in sight in Moscow next week.