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They won a battle but not the war

By Johnny Byrnes and James Hopper

As Ireland reach the halfway point of yet another qualifying campaign, the familiar inquest into the team’s previous performances has begun. The newspaper columns, vigorously discussing Giovanni Trapattoni’s every move, have been put on hold until summer.

As the Irish players filter back for their respective Premiership and Championship end-of-season finales, in what position are the national team heading into the summer?

With Ireland currently occupying fourth spot in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group – level on points with second-placed Austria – things would appear to be going smoothly. However, the displays produced thus far by the team have not eased any pressure off the manager, with fans still calling for Trapattoni’s departure come the end of October.

Stockholm’s relatively new Friends Arena welcomed Ireland and their fans in late-March for an eagerly-awaited clash. Some surprising tactical calls from Trapattoni came to fruition, with Sweden’s key men of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Kim Källström kept quiet by commanding performances from James McCarthy and Paul Green.

The Italian’s new tactical approach of including the likes of James McClean and Shane Long in Ireland’s starting XI to enhance the creativity levels thwarted the Swedes’ hopes of a home win and Ireland emerged from the game with a well-earned point.

After a creditable performance in Stockholm, Austria’s visit to Dublin four days later soon evaporated any faint possibility Ireland had of cementing second spot in the group.

Shorn of captain Robbie Keane, a two-goal salvo from Jon Walters seemed to have put Ireland in a victorious position. However, a last-minute strike from Bayern Munich’s David Alaba silenced three ends of the Aviva Stadium and the game finished in a confidence-sapping 2-2 draw. In what should have been a significant step towards qualification, a disconsolate Aviva was left to digest a perhaps fatal blow to Ireland’s qualification ambitions.

Although the recent qualifiers ended on a disappointing note, some Irish players emerged with good report cards, with Séamus Coleman, Shane Long and David Forde putting in solid displays. Others, like Ciarán Clark and Conor Sammon, didn’t cover themselves in any glory and will head into this summer’s fixtures with an air of uncertainty hanging over their places in the squad.

The fixtures in question include friendlies against England in Wembley on 29 May and Spain in New York on 11 June. Trapattoni’s side also has a qualifier against the Faroe Islands in June. Fans will be hoping for positive results in these games, with a campaign-defining match against Austria awaiting the Irish on 10 September.

The recurring theme of this campaign has been one of regret. Ireland’s inability to secure a win against one of their main rivals could ultimately prove costly.

Playing in a World Cup is the pinnacle of any player’s career and it has been almost 12 years since the likes of Quinn, Holland and Harte graced the global stage. Ireland will need to perform impeccably in their remaining Group C games if they want to end this unwanted statistic.

 Photo by Tarafuku10 [wikicommons]

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