Chance for Le Tissier to repay Venables

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Matthew Le Tissier is being challenged to live up to his boast that he is the best in the business when Terry Venables puts him on the spot at Lansdowne Road tonight.

The England coach has bowed to the barnstorming campaign by the 26-year- old Saint, recalling him against Jack Charlton's Irishmen and reuniting him with his former Dell partner, Alan Shearer.

"Now it's up to me. I don't want to let myself down - or my country," said a grateful Le Tissier.

Warren Barton makes his debut at right-back, while Darren Anderton, Paul Ince, David Seaman, Tony Adams and Gary Pallister all return after missing November's win against Nigeria.

But the selection of Le Tissier was always going to be a measure of Venables' commitment to the unpredictable Southampton man and, fittingly on Valentine's Day, he declared in favour.

"Popular opinion wants him to play, he wants to play and I want him to play, so we're all in favour from the beginning," said the coach.

Venables cannot afford to give him the total freedom of Lansdowne Road against Big Jack's injury-hit team of misfits and makeweights, who will graft as hard as ever. But he has done the next best thing by giving him a roving commission up front alongside Shearer.

"It's great to have that understanding already in place when you come into the international side," said Le Tissier, who was relegated back to the substitutes' bench after failing to impress on his only other start against Romania in October.

"It's a very important game for me, as it is for a lot of players. It will be nice to get a decent performance under my belt and hopefully get on the scoresheet."

Venables added: "There is pressure on everyone at this level. I just want him to play like he does for his club.

"I've seen him play in many different ways. But his game remains the same - trying to hurt the opposition with his talent. That's what has always impressed everyone."

Venables is encouraged, too, by the self-belief which simmers below his self-effacing exterior, though Le Tissier insisted: "Don't call me big- headed - it's simply in my own mind that I feel I can be the best. But I know I still have to prove that to everyone."

Playing the best football of his life, with 21 goals this season, he knows it could be his one chance to persuade the England coach to build his 1996 European Championship team around him. But Shearer, whose double act with Le Tissier was the platform for his £3.6m move to Blackburn and rise to pre-eminence among England strikers, backs him to succeed.

"He's not really done it yet for England but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he can start doing for his country what he's done week in, week out for Southampton," said Shearer.

"It's great to have him alongside again. Everyone knows he has tremendous ability and he deserves his chance.

"I only left Southampton so I didn't have to keep doing his running for him! But seriously, if he can put in some of his great through balls I'll be delighted to get on the end of them again."

With Peter Beardsley filling in for Liverpool Coca-Cola Cup semi-finalist John Barnes on the left, David Platt coming in from midfield and Anderton, re-confirmed after injury as automatic choice on the right, it should be a flexible attack.

Without his Liverpool contingent, plus the self-imposed exile of Dennis Wise and an injury to Tim Flowers, Venables has completely rebuilt the side that beat Nigeria - but it includes nine of the men who formed his first selection against Denmark a year ago.

The Arsenal goalkeeper Seaman returns for his 17th cap, fronted by the first-choice central defensive pairing of Adams and Pallister, who were both injured last autumn and replaced by debutants Neil Ruddock and Newcastle's Steve Howey.

This selection means that Platt, Shearer and left-back Graeme Le Saux are the only three players with an ever-present record under the new coach as he hazards his unbeaten record here. "This is a game which could tell us a lot about ourselves," Venables predicted - and Le Tissier most of all.

Paul McGrath, meanwhile, knows he must finally tame Shearer here if the Republic are to continue to embarrass England in international combat.

"I think I've played against him about seven times and he must have scored the same number of goals," admits the Aston Villa veteran, still the kingpin of the Irish defence at 35 - 10 years Shearer's senior.

"He is probably one of the best strikers I've ever played against - if not the best. How will I stop him at Lansdowne Road? I don't know. I'll just see how things pan out, although with my record against him perhaps I'd better leave it to Alan Kernaghan to deal with him!"

But despite the typical disarming modesty, McGrath - who wins his 72nd cap tonight, just six short of Pat Bonner's Irish record - is sure the battle with Shearer is the key to the victory over England which the Irish fans crave.

Those fans - 46,000 will pack Lansdowne Road and twice as many feel frustrated at failing to get tickets - revel in the fact that their team are unbeaten in four games against the English under Charlton's command.

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