Uneasy silence as Irish prepare for moment of truth

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The Independent Football

It was before that match in 2001 - the victorious World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands - that from the shadows of the stands Keane had delivered a rallying cry on behalf of the Republic of Ireland. Yesterday - ahead of the equally important qualifier against France - there was silence.

"No-one fancied it today," shrugged an official from the Football Association of Ireland when asked about the non-appearance of Keane or his Manchester United team-mate Liam Miller who were both, according to the rota drawn up by Ireland's captain Kenny Cunningham, due. "They wanted to focus on the game," the official added.

Their absence was a protest at stories claiming Keane had rowed with Ireland's manager Brian Kerr after several players, led by Robbie Keane, were allowed to go to a nightclub on Friday.

While confirming the players - the party also included Gary Doherty, Paddy Kenny and Nicky Colgan - had been given time off, Kerr had also taken time himself to vehemently deny the allegations of a bust-up.

The incident does appear to have been over-blown, and there was little reason yesterday to suspect that Keane had challenged Kerr in such terms. But there is a growing sense of siege mentality about the squad and also a sense that the manager may be on borrowed time - and may be about to blow qualification for the second time. If they fail to reach Germany next year then Kerr cannot expect to retain his post. And he knows it.

Kerr was brought in to succeed Mick McCarthy who ultimately paid the price for Keane's Saipan walk-out before the 2002 World Cup. There is no parallel here but there was a concession yesterday from Kerr that the pressure is on, especially as the spectre of a final qualification match against Switzerland, who prevented Ireland from reaching Euro 2004, looms.

"Everyone wants to be in the action near the end of the group," Kerr said of the qualification process. "There will be other managers with an air of expectancy in their country and the media will be speculating about what he has done and hasn't done and what he may achieve, what may have gone wrong. That's how it goes."

It also appears Kerr is prepared to roll the dice. Having been severely criticised for attempting a 4-5-1 formation (he called it 4-3-3) in the recent friendly against Italy, when Ireland were out-played, Kerr may retain it - "it's an option," he conceded - to combat the real threat of Zinedine Zidane. That could mean Clinton Morrison missing out. The Crystal Palace striker has been a conspicuously unhappy figure for the past two days.

But there are also injury concerns, with Shay Given sitting out the end of training yesterday and Damien Duff recovering from a sore knee. A virus has also affected both Kevin Kilbane and Andy O'Brien.

Worrying times then for Ireland, who find themselves in the hardest-fought and most fraught of groups. They also go into the meeting with France with seven players on yellow cards. If they draw tonight and win their final two matches - in Cyprus and at home to the Swiss - it should be enough. It may come down, once more, to goal difference.

France arrived late yesterday and carried on with their obsession with the "physical" threat of the Irish - something their coach Raymond Domenech condescendingly called "the classic Irish style". Before setting off, Patrick Vieira, who will renew hostilities with Keane, said: "It will be one of the most difficult matches we've faced for a long time. There will be a lot of intimidation. It will be very physical."

Standing to leave, Kerr was asked what he wanted from tonight's crowd. "I would hope the 36,000 maddest - or potentially maddest Irish people will be at the game," he said. "People should be partisan and even people who normally go in their suits should come and wear the colours and get stuck in."