Given return boosts Irish hopes of another shut-out

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The Independent Online

It was in keeping with the Republic of Ireland's cagey approach that Kenny Cunningham was elected to speak ahead of today's vital World Cup qualifying tie against Israel.

It was in keeping with the Republic of Ireland's cagey approach that Kenny Cunningham was elected to speak ahead of today's vital World Cup qualifying tie against Israel.

Cunningham is known as Arthur Scargill in the dressing room back at Birmingham City - because of his opinionated, argumentative views - but Ireland's captain can also be the ultimate in cautious diplomacy.

Indeed the 34-year-old's defences are as secure as those of his country which he organises so effectively, where the 25 games under the control of manager Brian Kerr have witnessed a remarkable 15 clean sheets, with just two goals conceded in the last nine matches. Cunningham even went so far yesterday as to declare there were no easy contests in international football.

Ireland's prospects of keeping another clean sheet received a significant boost with the news that goalkeeper Shay Given's hip injury has eased and he will earn a 68th cap against Israel. "Since I have been in the squad," said Cunningham, who made his debut in 1996, "Given has been probably the most consistent player, and the test of a world-class goalkeeper is that when he is called upon he can produce those saves." Given, he added, had been the "pivotal figure for the last eight to 10 years", which is high praise indeed when the importance of Roy Keane, and latterly Damien Duff, is taken into account.

Ireland's match is followed immediately by the visit of France here for a qualifier in Group Four, which is proving the tightest of groups, and the declaration of another goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, that it was too unsafe to travel, and that he was not coming, has not been well-received. "Israel is a very quiet place," said Tal Ben Haim, the Bolton Wanderers defender who may be deployed to mark Duff today. "So if he [Barthez] does not want to come he should stay in France."

Ireland dismissed any safety concerns with Kerr saying: "There are no problems at all, no signs that we are involved in a situation that needs security. It's not an issue. We're just here to play a game."

The atmosphere inside the 40,000 Ramat Gan stadium will be "passionate and partisan" but Kerr reminded everyone that Ireland had gone to Georgia and Albania and achieved results while, in the last campaign, they had negotiated a tie in Iran. "The officials will be strong and make the right decisions and won't be swayed by the crowd," Kerr said. "Our team is quite young but there's a lot of experience."

Not least with Cunningham who spoke of the need to "dig in" and "keep your composure". Ireland have, as always, done their homework. DVDs of their opponents, individually-tailored for each player, have been studied and Cunningham said he expected "a cat-and-mouse game". "They are happy to draw you on," he said. "One stray pass and they will be straight on you."

He picked out Ben Haim, his former Wimbledon team-mate Walid Badier but, deliberately perhaps, didn't mention Israel's most dangerous player of all, the 24-year-old play-maker Yossi Benayoun who has taken the mantle of the exiled Eyal Berkovic and is attracting interest from the Premiership. Kerr may deploy Steve Finnan to keep him quiet.

Ireland know the importance of victory - but also of avoiding defeat. "To lose any game from now until the end of this group would be a blow and mean that you are playing catch-up and that's always difficult," Cunningham said. "But we're in a rich vein of form, have a lot of good results, are confident and there's a lot of belief."

Israel: (3-4-1-2 probable): Awat; Ben Haim, Benado, Gershon; Afek, Nimni, Badier, Keisi; Benayoun; Balili, Golan.

Republic of Ireland: (4-4-2 probable): Given; Carr, O'Brien (all Newcastle United), Cunningham (Birmingham City), O'Shea (Manchester United); Finnan (Liverpool), Roy Keane (Manchester Utd), Kilbane (Everton), Duff (Chelsea); Morrison (Birmingham City), Robbie Keane (Tottenham Hotspur).

Referee: V Ivanov (Russia).

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