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Stalemate in Stockholm

Another Ireland match, viagra another circus surrounding Giovanni Trapattoni’s man management skills…is it just me, or has the international break become all too repetitive? One minute, the Italian is dropping Kevin Doyle by text message; the next, he’s suggesting that Robbie Brady might be psychologically unfit to play and branding James McCarthy ‘uncreative’; Ireland’s World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign has been to date more notable for Trap’s collection of controversies than any outstanding performances.

Glenn Whelan and Paul Green were preferred to popular choices, Hoolahan and McCarthy, in the manager’s initial starting XI, but a hamstring injury to Whelan bumped the latter into contention. Brady, who had been named in Trap’s original plans, was demoted to the bench in favour of Stoke’s Jonathan Walters. The decision over Brady prompted media uproar, particularly with respect to Trapattoni’s earlier comments over his psychological condition. Later, the manager would clarify his remarks as being intended to ‘motivate’ the young winger and criticised the press for twisting his words.

Whatever Trap meant, his critics – whose ranks seem to swell with each passing gaffe – were quick to jump on the offensive in the build up to Friday’s qualifier. No doubt had his Irish outfit lost in Stockholm on Friday night, the pressure cooker would come to a boil and his head would be firmly on the chopping board.

Luckily for the manager, however, a respectable Irish performance earned them a respectable point in the Swedish capital, keeping the naysayers at bay for the time being. Standout performances from David Forde and James McCarthy were the major talking points in what could very well have been an away win after a flurry of chances for Ireland in the first half went begging. Walters couldn’t find the target with a header in the opening few minutes, while Robbie Keane failed to connect a volley under no pressure in the Swedish box and Long fired over the bar from 16 yards out shortly after. McCarthy was calm and collected in midfield, undermining Trap’s assessment of his supposed lack of creativity with a number of visionary passes that his teammates simply failed to make count.

Sweden grew into the game, although not as much as one would expect a team on home soil to settle, and Ireland’s chances grew more infrequent. Generally speaking, the Swedes were shaky across the park. The famed Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed to make any real impact and their defence suffered a few scares, in stark contrast to an assured performance by an Irish back four of John O’Shea, Ciarán Clark, Marc Wilson and Séamus Coleman. When Sweden did break the back line, David Forde was on hand to clear up, showing decisiveness and speed off his line. Hoolahan, Andy Keogh and Conor Sammon all made late cameos, but they couldn’t influence the scoreline and the game ended nil-all.

Most Irish fans would have gladly accepted a draw going into Friday’s match. Sweden, seen as our main competitor for the second place spot in the table with Germany running away with first, were expected to be tricky. On the day, however, the Swedes were listless and rather than one point won, it was more a case of two points lost. Nonetheless, the draw very much keeps Ireland in the running for qualification.

The outlook will be clearer after Tuesday’s tie with Austria in Dublin. Kevin Doyle has already been recalled to the squad (the FAI press release insisted Trapattoni had ‘spoken’ to the player, so we can be sure he didn’t receive the news by carrier pigeon) after Robbie Keane was ruled out due to injury, while Glenn Whelan has yet to return to training, suggesting that once again Trapattoni will decide between Hoolahan, Green and McCarthy for the coveted central midfield spots. Having (comically) compared Green to Gennaro Gattuso this week, it’s likely that Trap sees him as one of the first names on the teamsheet. Indeed, he will almost certainly stick to the starting line-up that served him so well in Stockholm; the real question is whether out-of-favour Doyle will step straight into Keane’s shoes, or will former UCD AFC striker Conor Sammon get the nod?

Kick-off at the Aviva Stadium is 19:45 on Tuesday, March 26th.

-Amy Eustace

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