Exciting times, uncertain times. The Republic of Ireland go into their critical match against Albania with qualification for Euro 2004 as unclear as the future of at least half the players in Brian Kerr's burgeoning squad. Stephen Carr, Gary Breen, Kevin Kilbane, Matt Holland, Damien Duff; all will start today but do not know where they will be come August. Then there is Steven Reid, Gary Doherty, Nicky Colgan, Stephen McPhail, Mark Kinsella and Colin Healy. The latest name added to the list yesterday was David Connolly, now that his club, Wimbledon, are in administration.
The summer sale signs may not have gone up on Grafton Street, but across Dublin at Lansdowne Road there will be more than a just little window-shopping, with representatives of at least seven Premiership clubs in attendance.
Kerr, who has done so much to restore his country's fortunes and confidence, will be hoping that such news is not a distraction. To his credit, however, he acknowledged that some of his players are concerned. "It is maybe a bit awkward for them because they cannot be involved in the negotiations or discussions while they are here with us," he said. "I am satisfied that they have been totally concentrated on our job this week so once we get finished they can go about their business."
First, however, it is Ireland's business. That they are still talking about qualifying for Portugal is down to the four points eked out against Georgia and Albania in a demanding double-header in the spring, Kerr's first competitive games in charge. He has book-ended the fixtures with two friendly victories, against Scotland and, more impressively, Norway, while in those four games just one goal has been conceded.
Nevertheless, the reverse of the double-header will be tough. Six points are needed although, in what has been dubbed the "group of banana skins" (not because of the quality of the teams, more because of their inconsistency), four points may again suffice.
"I would not talk of 'must-win' games at this stage particularly with the way that the group has gone already," claimed Ireland's captain Kenny Cunningham. "But, of course, the players are aware of the significance of the next two games and if we can put back-to-back victories together then it would really put us in a strong position."
Such is the uncertainty of Group 10 that Kerr admitted to being unsure what result he wanted when Switzerland play Russia today. In truth, all five teams can qualify.
Despite the gap between the end of the domestic season and now, the Irish decided to take the unusual step of not arranging a friendly match against international opponents prior to these fixtures (they also entertain Georgia on Wednesday). An offer to play New Zealand was refused, although there have been three practice games.
Kerr defended his decision by saying that the players have shown greater "enthusiasm" after having a break, which has included time away with their families and two training camps. He added: "The sessions were designed with an understanding that the players had to work to regain the sharpness which may have been lost when you do not have regular games."
But the Ireland manager has undoubtedly taken a risk, especially as he is demanding a high-tempo from his side in today's game. "Our approach has to be a bit more aggressive," he said. "The circumstances that we played under in Albania made it reasonable for us to be a bit cautious."
The Albanians were certainly aggressive during April's 0-0 draw in Tirana and were somewhat unfortunate not to win. "They decided on the rhythm of the game and they imposed the rhythm of the game," Kerr admitted, "as their support did. But I expect us to be at a better tempo than we were in Albania."
Consequently, he is again likely to adapt his formation away from a rigid 4-4-2, with Duff deployed in a free role behind the strikers. Praise for the 24-year-old could not have been higher yesterday. "In Irish terms he is a great player, in the history of Irish football. Even at such a young age he is in there with the best players we have had," Kerr said.
The Albanians are promising a positive approach, too. Their manager, the German former World Cup player Hans-Peter Briegel - already a revered figure after beating Russia in his first game in charge - said he would play with two strikers and "attack Ireland". "He has changed the mentality," said the Albanian defender Adrian Aliaj. "Before it wasn't professional but now it is."
Kerr will be hoping that his own players are also mentally prepared. And, despite not knowing which club many of them will be at next season, a victory may help decide where they will be next summer.
Republic of ireland (probable) (4-3-1-2): Given (Newcastle United); Carr (Tottenham Hotspur), Breen (West Ham United), Cunningham (Birmingham City), O'Shea (Manchester United); Kilbane (Sunderland), Kinsella (Aston Villa), Holland (Ipswich Town); Duff (Blackburn Rovers); Keane (Tottenham Hotspur), Connolly (Wimbledon).
Albania (probable) (3-4-1-2): Strakosha (Kalfea); Aliaj (SK Tirana), Cipi (Ghent), Beqiri (Vllaznia); Duro (Majatispor), Bellaj (Panionos), Hasi (Anderlecht), Murati (Iraklis); Skela (Eintracht Frankfurt); Rrakli (Diyarbakirspor), Tare (Brescia).
Referee: T Mikulski (Poland).
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