Football / World Cup USA '94: Keane fit to face an Italian side still in a muddle: Charlton tries to remain cool amid clamour and stays faithful to the team who brought the Republic on to the grand stage

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AT THE start of their World Cup crusade in the Giants Stadium, New Jersey, tonight, the Republic of Ireland can be assured that while Italy have the players of exotic skill and the weight of history in their favour, they are also the team with all the problems.

A desultory warm-up campaign behind them - in great contrast to the Irish, who were uplifted by victories against the Netherlands and Germany - the Group E favourites appear confused and at odds over how to cope with the united force Jack Charlton has brought once more to football's grand gathering.

To play 4-3-3 or 4-4-2? Either way, the numbers game does not quite add up for the famed Azzurri. Daniele Massaro, who misses out in Arrigo Sacchi's selection, had earlier pinpointed the dilemma: 'All the numbers are confusing me. Let's play lotto instead.'

No problems of that nature in the Irish camp, where an air of relaxed determination is tangible. Charlton will use the 4-5-1 strategy that has brought a heightened level of performance, and expectation, since qualifying. Roy Keane has shaken off his groin injury to assume his midfield grafter's role in Charlton's strongest line-up. The manager

said: 'It was a difficult selection given the young lads who have come in and shown they have a future with us. It was tempting to play a couple of them but this is the first of three games and it's only right that the team who brought us here have the opportunity to show they are capable of taking us further.'

The Englishman admits to feeling 'apprehensive' but says the same goes for every manager fretting over his team's chances at the onset of the four-week showpiece. 'If I can go around looking a bit more relaxed it is because I can afford to be because my players are so relaxed and in control. They do not seem to have any worries and from what I hear it is a different situation to what is happening with the Italians.'

After two years swapping and changing and devising different systems, Sacchi appeared settled on a midfield three that gave room for their danger man, Roberto Baggio, to operate as the central striker, flanked by Giuseppe Signori and Massaro.

Then came another disappointment in only a narrow defeat of Costa Rica - following on from losses inspired by France and Germany and even by an Italian fifth division outfit - and another overhaul: from the players this time, more so than the boss.

When they got together in a hotel room to thrash out their problems, Franco Baresi, the imperious captain who heads a complement of six, including the entire defence, from the European champions, Milan, complained that having one man light in the middle exerted unfair pressure on the defence.

The players' solution was to revert to a two-man strike force, with Massaro the fall guy. 'For the good of the defence it is better that we play four in midfield,' Baresi said.

Even before the Italians broke out in disharmony, it was surely to Ireland's advantage to be facing them first in what appears a difficult section. For all the jewels in their collection, the three-time World Cup winners seldom begin a major tournament in positive, free-flowing mode.

It is also to Ireland's good that a pitch of imported turf covering the plastic surface on which the NFL's New York Giants and Jets strut their stuff is below Fifa's minimum width measurement. In New York, traditional lines are frequently redrawn and it will help the green army's avowed intent to frustrate the opposition by cramping their style.

Charlton confirmed that Phil Babb had done enough in his spring-term examinations to oust the accident-prone Alan Kernaghan and that the experience of Denis Irwin and Ray Houghton had won the vote over Gary Kelly and Jason McAteer. 'Ray has worked very hard out here and how can you keep Denis out? He was probably the best full-back in England last year,' said the manager who yesterday cut a contrasting figure to the worried Sacchi, even though his dislike of press conferences surfaced again when he insisted on television lights being switched off and was drawn into an argument with Paolo Taveriggia, a Fifa official, and a former secretary of Milan.

'Sacchi is expected to win and if he doesn't there will be shockwaves across Europe,' the new Freeman of Dublin added. 'I have not got that kind of pressure although the weight of expectation from our people is pretty daunting, far more so than in Italy four years ago.'

There is a strong feeling that the improvements wrought by the new strategy and the emergence of new talent can see them through the test. Keane is crucial to that sense of well-being and relief was all around when he came through the final work-out unscathed.

'I have not missed many games over the last four years and not one for a strain,' the Premiership's most expensive player said. 'I wouldn't want to miss this for the world. People ask how did the Irish manage to qualify, but it's because we are a good team blessed with good players and Italy are now showing us the respect we deserve.'

Even though the start of another four-yearly extravaganza - the Gay Games which are expected to draw more than one million people to New York - took top billing on the city television's sport segment, the eyes of two diverse nations will be fixed on the home of the Giants tonight. All of Britain share the hope that the Republic can deny Italy a way out of their muddle and claim at least a point. That would be to their advantage over Norway and Mexico, the group's other contenders, who play tomorrow.

ITALY (4-4-2): Pagliuca (Sampdoria); Tassotti, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Donadoni, Albertini (all Milan), D Baggio (Juventus), Evani (Sampdoria); R Baggio (Juventus), Signori (Lazio).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-5-1): Bonner (Celtic); Irwin (Manchester Utd), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Coventry), Phelan (Manchester C); Houghton, Townsend (both Aston Villa), Keane (Manchester Utd), Sheridan (Sheff Wed), Staunton (Aston Villa); Coyne (Motherwell).

Referee: M Van der Ende (Neth).

(Photograph omitted)

Big Apple's friendly rivals, page 21