Ireland kick off their Euro 2012 qualification campaign with a visit to Armenia tomorrow. This has all the hallmarks of a “tricky away tie” with the distance travelled, the expected heat, the allegedly bumpy pitch and a supposedly hostile crowd all combining to upset Irish hopes.
Ireland are far from full-strength with Duff, O’Dea, McShane, Andrews, Treacy and Hunt all ruled out through injuries. This isn’t a squad that can cope easily with key absences but despite criticisms of Trapattoni’s conservative selection policy it is significant that he won’t be calling on anyone lacking in experience to start the game in Yerevan.
There has been much talk of the lack of game time enjoyed by some key players at club level and there are plenty of the squad who are out of favour with their respective managers at present. In truth however the season is only a couple of weeks old and there should be no massive fitness or sharpness concerns over those who participated in full pre-season campaigns with their clubs.
The back four is, as ever, three-quarters of a decent unit with Dunne, St Leger and O’Shea all more than comfortable at this level. O’Shea has matured into a very reliable player for Ireland and has coped well with filling in at full back or centre half. Dunne and St Leger have developed a partnership and understanding now in an area that looked particularly vulnerable in the recent nightmare of Staunton’s regime. Kilbane is less than assured at left back, though thankfully the prospect of McShane or O’Dea providing emergency cover at full back is removed from the equation. Kilbane is experienced enough to compensate for his weaknesses by positioning himself conservatively. While he has been error prone in recent matches he remains solid enough when attacking the ball - his problems nearly always stem from getting caught with a ball in behind or when faced with a winger running at him. The latter is largely unavoidable unfortunately, but the former worries can be negated with a narrower and deeper starting position.
The midfield has Trapattoni’s usual balance of two central players required to shield the defence and retain possession and two wingers who are required to bridge the defenders and central midfielders with the strikers. Neither McGeady nor Lawrence are approaching this game with any sort of fitness thanks to prolonged transfers and recent injuries but the options out wide are very thin on the ground. The natural selection of McGeady on the left and Lawrence on the right might cause concerns with McGeady and Kilbane possibly too vulnerable defensively on the same flank so we may see the more industrious Lawrence switching to the left flank.
The wingers are an essential component of Trapattoni’s Irish system and they will be relied on to provide whatever spark and creativity is required. Both should be motivated to impress at club level after their recent moves so hopefully that translates into renewed enthusiasm for their efforts with Ireland.
Paul Green replaces the injured Keith Andrews in the heart of the midfield after impressing in recent friendly internationals. Ireland won’t lose much with this change as Andrews has been less than brilliant lately and is another who is struggling to get games with his club. Whelan has developed into one of Ireland’s most important players and it’s important that he continues to contribute accurately and frequently in the middle of the park.
Doyle and Keane are two players who Ireland can’t afford to lose, especially in games where there are notions of victory. The goalscoring record of Keane and the work ethic of Doyle dovetail excellently and as there are no goalscoring alternatives at the moment (and there isn’t even a real contender to be next in line), the importance of this pairing cannot be overstated.
The relative strength of the first team is welcome, particulary given the notable absentees, but there are real concerns about the quality of the bench. Cunningham, Kelly and Foley comprise the defensive cover (with O’Shea’s versatility a real factor), Gibson is the extent of the midfield options and Keogh, Long and Sheridan represent the attacking options.
Armenia are a real unknown quantity as far as household names are concerned. Much has been made of their impressive home record but the reality is they finished comfortably bottom of their World Cup qualifying group with one win and one draw from 10 matches. Their victory came at the expense of Belgium who also lost in Estonia and Bosnia, as well as Spain, in that campaign. They drew 2-2 with Estonia and that point was Estonia’s only point away from home in qualifying. They are reasonable results when viewed in isolation but the top 3 teams all won in Armenia and Ireland should be expecting the same.
Their most obvious dangerman is Henrikh Mkhitaryan who recently moved to Shakhtar Donetsk after impressive spells with Pyunik Yerevan and Metalurh Donetsk saw him move for €6m in the summer. Worryingly, he has form against Ireland - he managed a hat trick against Ireland Under 21s last year:
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Ireland’s away form has improved under Trapattoni and the familiar system and the experienced personnel should be enough to secure a victory. Injuries have made the assignment trickier than it might have been but a win in Armenia whould be well within the reach of this Irish side. Yerevan won’t be the easiest venue this team will play in this year but the truth is there won’t be many easier opponents. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster but a win should be the sole aim.