Preview – With the Premier League season starting on Saturday, and the spate of withdrawals from the Irish squad, we don’t expect much from tonight’s friendly with Croatia. And by now you’d think Giovanni Trapattoni would consistently pick Ireland’s best players. However, with two massive qualifying games looming, his squad selections remain as erratic as ever meaning this evening offers a last chance for someone to gate-crash the Italian’s plans.
Trap ignored Seamus Coleman for much of last season and then subjected him to shabby treatment on his first call-up by leaving him benched against Norway. The Everton player featured consistently in the end of season squads and was included again this time around suggesting he had made an impression on the manager ahead of next month’s crucial double-header. So it was unfortunate that Coleman was forced to drop out this week.
James McCarthy suffered another ankle injury in a pre-season game with Villareal and withdrew, scuppering his chances of forcing his way into Ireland’s midfield.
Norwich’s Wes Hoolahan must have thought his luck was in, preparing for a season in the Premier League with the Canaries having starred for Paul Lambert’s team last year.
Instead, Trapattoni plumped for Chelsea prospect Conor Clifford. The 19-year-old Dubliner was called up as cover for the midfield position but has yet to feature for the Stamford Bridge outfit. Clifford even played in last night’s U21 meeting with Austria in Sligo. In the circumstances, Hoolahan is entitled to feel aggrieved.
And it is these kind of squad selections that baffle Irish supporters. Trapattoni also called up Ipswich’s Damien Delaney for tonight’s game but the defender was forced to cry off injured. So the Italian enlisted Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark. The manager has the luxury of calling on Premier League regulars to replace his Championship first choices.
Kevin Doyle was another to pull out at the last minute and gives way in the starting line-up to Shane Long fresh from his move to West Brom. His new club colleague Simon Cox was flavour of the month for Ireland’s management at the end of last season after impressing in his first appearances in an Irish shirt. Yet, judging by Marco Tardelli’s comments then and Trapattoni’s this week, Shane Long is by no means ahead in the pecking order. This is despite Cox himself effectively saying he will have to fight to be paired with Long in West Brom’s starting line-up.
On the other hand, Stephen Ward has muscled his way into Trap’s thoughts, starting at left-back for tonight’s encounter after excelling in the end-of-season games. The Wolves man has a real shot at featuring next month against Slovakia.
Lansdowne Road visitors Croatia lie second behind Greece in Euro 2012 qualifying, level on points with Israel. They’ve conceded just three times in six games but with Robbie Keane still revelling in his recent hot streak for his country and looking to impress a potential suitor in the Premier League, and Shane Long looking to capitalise on Kevin Doyle’s absence, the Republic could be lively up front.
Our midfield woes have been highlighted but it is an experienced selection by Trapattoni tonight with wingers Damien Duff and Stephen Hunt likely to cause problems for Slaven Bilic’s side on the flanks.
Croatia, currently ranked ninth in the world and top seeds in the recent World Cup draw, also boast Luka Modric in their ranks, currently sought by Chelsea in a big money move.
Our central frailties may be exposed again tonight against a technically skilled opposition but the home team are going into the game on the back of a sizzling run of form including a brilliant away win over Italy.
Trap will know that confidence ahead of next month’s real deal will be pivotal. And for those reasons, Ireland may raise this game above pre-season fare.
Rep. Ireland vs Croatia:
Shay Given; Stephen Kelly, Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger, Stephen Ward; Damien Duff, Glenn Whelan, Darron Gibson, Stephen Hunt; Shane Long, Robbie Keane.