Brian Kerr, the Republic of Ireland manager, is bravely trying to ignore the sideshow of Roy Keane's return to the international scene, to create a team, and team spirit, that will be capable of securing a place in the 2006 World Cup finals. However, based on a lacklustre performance against a hastily assembled Nigerian side at Charlton Athletic's Valley home, Keane's presence in the Irish ranks will be vital if Kerr is to oversee a successful qualifying campaign.
Keane was sunning himself on a holiday, arranged prior to his much-heralded return to the Ireland fold in a 1-0 win over Romania on Thursday, as his team-mates were ripped apart by an under-strength Nigeria side playing with the kind of swaggering confidence that makes the African nation a much-feared opponent.
However, with each goal conceded and every Nigerian step-over that went unchecked by a toothless Ireland, the need for Keane's tigerish and unrelenting presence in midfield became all the more evident as Kerr's men got the three-team Unity Cup under way with defeat.
Kerr accepts Keane will have a vital role to play when Ireland's qualification campaign for the World Cup begins in October with the visit of Switzerland, who ended Irish hopes of qualifying for Euro 2004. But he is insistent that the squad, who have helped him to a record of only two defeats in 16 internationals since taking over from Mick McCarthy, have the ability to make it to the 2006 finals in Germany, with or without Keane.
"It wasn't the best of games for us but we still have a very able squad," said Kerr, whose side face Jamaica on Wednesday in the last game of the event. "But we have to be honest in the fact that we have another complete back four and probably another midfield who weren't playing today.
"We lacked zest and drive from the very start and that is what comes from playing two games in three days, but we cannot be too downcast.
"We arranged these games and came out to play these sides knowing they would be real tests and that we could expect to lose matches if we are weak and make changes. So it is not a huge surprise that we lost, but it is fair to say that apart from having a lot of new faces on the pitch there aren't many positives to come out of the game, especially having done so well against Romania."
The clash with Nigeria marked the ideal opportunity for Kerr to do the things expected of him before the autumn; to mix the old and the new and to blood some of the youngsters that he himself, in his previous guise as under-21 coach, helped develop before taking over from McCarthy.
Compared to Kerr's carefully laid plan, Nigeria appear to get by without evidence of pre-planning, relying largely on talent alone. The country's football affairs are as haphazard as the travel arrangements that saw only one player - the goalkeeper Sunday Rotimi - arrive on time at the Docklands headquarters of their coach Christian Chukwu on Thursday.
But Nigeria have never let organisational problems ruin their spirits. They seem as disorganised and hit-and-miss on the pitch too, but they certainly make up with flair and trickery. They could have scored after five minutes when John Utaka's shot was hacked away by keeper Nick Colgan, and they should have scored six minutes later when Bartholomew Ogbeche side-footed against the upright.
The inevitable goal came after 36 minutes when Ogbeche fired a low, left-footed drive past the despairing dive of Colgan from the edge of the penalty area following typically inventive play from Martins. It could have been two before the break when Ogbeche outpaced Gary Doherty to reach a long through-ball, only for Colgan to block an attempted lob on the edge of his penalty area.
Four minutes after the break, Inter Milan's Obafami Martins picked up the ball inside the Irish half and proceeded to tease and tantalise Kenny Cunningham before rounding him and toe-poking the ball home. A third followed when constant Nigerian pressure forced a mistake as full-back Clive Clarke hit a heavy backpass at Colgan, who fired his clearance straight at Martins. The ball spun across the goal for Ogbeche to tap his second of the game into an empty net.
But it was Nigeria's day and Chukwu said: "To us the results are not important. We are here to prepare for our first World Cup qualifying game against Rwanda on 5 June and we just want to see how the youngsters perform."Reuse content