Ireland must pass muster in Slovakia to resurrect hope

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The Independent Football

The piecemeal concrete structure of Lansdowne Road may now be transformed into a glittering glass bowl, but for much of Friday night in the Aviva it was as if Jack Charlton was still in the dugout.

Time and again during the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2012 qualifying tie with Russia the long ball was pumped forward, from goalkeeper Shay Given, from the full-backs, from the holding midfielders.Time and again this was simply the precursor to another mesmerising and fluent Russian attack.

Irish doggedness, a soft penalty and poor Russian finishing meant the visitors won only narrowly, by the odd goal in five, but the gulf in class was much wider. As the post- mortem began, the focus was not just on whether Giovanni Trapattoni had a Plan B, it was whether even Plan A was a good idea.

It is never a good sign when a manager's salary is pitched into the debate, as Trap's £1.8 million pay was yesterday. After the cruel failure to reach the World Cup, and the early optimism of this qualifying campaign, the fear grows that the investment in the Italian veteran will not be rewarded.

For 70 minutes Trapattoni used a rigid 4-4-2 in which neither the full-backs nor central midfield went forward. Russia played a much more fluid 4-3-3 which, combinedwith their greater comfort on the ball, gave them a numerical edge wherever it mattered.

"They made us look a bit silly," Kevin Doyle said. "They were very positive to push so many players forward, their full-backs, their wingers were all over the place and they just seemed to get into holes and make it difficult.

"It's a big pitch and when someone is playing like that it is tough to play against. For an hour or so we were shown up in a way we haven't been for a long time."

Glenn Whelan, in central midfield with Derby's Paul Green, said: "We were outnumbered there at times." Only when Trapattoni moved Aiden McGeady – one of the night's few successes – inside behind Robbie Keane did Ireland find a competitive balance. "Getting an extra man in midfield was a turning point for us," Keane said.

Even then Ireland struggled to create chances. The first goal was a very iffy penalty – raising the question of what, aside from the consequences, is the difference between Thierry Henry handling and Keane diving? The second followed another long ball, punted into the box from his own half by Given.

It was all a bit of a surprise to anyone whose last full 90 minutes watching the Irish was the in-famous World Cup play-off in Paris. Richard Dunne admitted as much when he said: "We proved against France that we can pass theball and play football, it's about being brave enough, and we weren't brave enough."

Responding to suggestions that Trapattoni discouraged that style, the captain said: "We are allowed to pass the ball, but for whatever reason we just don't feel comfortable doing it. We have got to have confidence. We have got to be braver when we have the ball. It's all right going long with it, it's probably the easy way out for players, but we've got to try and get our foot on the ball and pass it and create chances."

That is what Russia did, but their players are more technically adept. While Trapattoni's men can certainly play better, a team who are forced to draw heavily on Premier League reserves and Championship players are always going to have limitations.

In the short term it does seem surprising that there is no place for Darron Gibson. An all-ManchesterUnited midfield partnership of Gibson and John O'Shea might be better equipped for the demands of international football than Whelan and Green. Stephen Foley could come in at right-back. Trapattoni, though, is not expected to change things significantly when Ireland play in Zilina on Tuesday against a Slovakian team reeling from defeat in Armenia.

Group B is now a four-cornered contest and Ireland can put themselves back in contention with a win. That may seem improbable after Friday's display but Slovakia will be without their World Cup goalscorer Robert Vittek (injured) and Liverpool's Martin Skrtel (suspended). Ireland have also often played better away from home under Trapattoni, who admitted: "Sometimes it is better to play away from home."

The Italian added: "I was a little bit disappointed but not too much. It was important we finished the game with the right mentality."

As Doyle pointed out: "We have to play Russia again, we have to play everyone again, so there's no point being too down about it."

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