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Five questions that tonight's Serbia-Ireland friendly will answer

We analyse five issues that Trap must solve, ahead of tonight’s international.

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni at yesterday's press conference.
Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni at yesterday's press conference.

WITH THE WORLD Cup qualifiers fast approaching, Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni will be hoping he can learn as much as possible about his youthful side during tonight’s friendly.

This encounter with Serbia seems hugely important given that the current Irish squad have been beset by problems of late. Shay Given has retired and a number of senior players could yet follow his lead.

Consequently, the Irish team are in transition, and it is difficult to recall a game that featured such an unfamiliar lineup since the side’s last period of sweeping changes, when players of the calibre of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff made their debuts in a 1998 friendly against the Czech Republic.

Could tonight ultimately prove to be as seminal an occasion as that memorable day in Olomouc all those years ago? The answers to the following questions should give fans a degree of insight as to whether the young pretenders are capable of emulating their esteemed predecessors.

Is Trap’s faith in Paul McShane justified?

The defender has a terrible reputation among many Irish fans, and there’s no doubting he has looked shaky in the past. The World Cup qualifying playoff against France, where he failed to adequately deal with the free-kick that led to William Gallas’s infamous goal, which helped Ireland’s opponents that night progress to the Finals at their expense, was one high-profile error that provided ample ammunition for his critics.

Consequently, while his passion and dedication are rarely doubted, question marks remain as to whether he has the temperament and concentration levels to cope with the demands of international football.

However, there is perhaps some cause for optimism. Euro 2012 notwithstanding, Trap has a habit of getting the best out of mediocre players, and there have been occasions where McShane has delivered solid performances – the friendly against Italy last year was one example. Moreover, at 26, the Ireland management team will at least be hopeful that the defender has matured since the early days of his career, when he became renowned for producing notoriously erratic displays.

Will the presence of James McCarthy in midfield enable Ireland to play a more attractive brand of football?

No one is suggesting Ireland need to match Spain’s technical prowess, as Stephen Hunt and others occasionally complain, but it would be nice if they could refrain from giving the ball away so cheaply ad nauseam. Of course, they are never going be as free-flowing as Brazil, but in the Mick McCarthy and Brian Kerr eras, they at least tried to pass the ball, and succeeded to an extent.

The alternative complaint was that limited players such as Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan were simply not good enough to dictate a game, and consequently, many claimed the inclusion of a player of James McCarthy’s ability would rectify the side’s shortcomings in this department. Therefore, perhaps more so than any other individual tonight, the Wigan man is under pressure to perform, in order to prove there’s substance to the hype that his supporters have been relentlessly spreading in recent months.

Will scoring goals be a major problem for the Irish team without Robbie Keane in the side?

Can Shane Long develop into an adequate long-term replacement for Robbie Keane? (INPHO/Donall Farmer)

While Keane’s ability may be waning, he was still crucial to the team as recently as the Euro 2012 qualifying group stages, scoring five of the teams 15 goals – a more than decent return, especially given that he was operating in a side that was heavily defence-oriented. However, there is reason to believe we may have seen the last of the LA Galaxy man in an Irish shirt, and it’s imperative that a solution to the conundrum of who should replace him is ascertained promptly.

Kevin Doyle, while being an admirable workhorse and a reasonably effective target man, clearly lacks Keane’s goalscoring instincts. Jon Walters, despite arguably having had the best season of all the Irish players in the Premier League last year, also seems highly unlikely to be capable of chipping in with the amount of goals that the Tallaght man contributed, given that he’s rarely been prolific at any point during his career. In addition, Simon Cox is surely not currently playing at a high enough level to be considered a credible contender for Keane’s throne.

That leaves Shane Long, who has – in patches – suggested that he has the attributes to replace Keane in the long term. However, Long has had an inconsistent career thus far, which has been hampered to some extent by injuries. At 25, it’s a case of now or never for the Tipperary native to fulfill his potential, and this challenge begins tonight.

Can Stephen Kelly make the left-back slot his own?

Left-back has been the one area that Ireland have continually failed to fill satisfactorily under Trap. Kevin Kilbane had seen better days by the time the Italian manager took over, and thus appeared a liability there at times. Meanwhile, Wolves’ Stephen Ward struggled to convince in the role following Kilbane’s departure.

So Kelly more than deserves his opportunity. Like Steve Finnan before him, he is the type of quietly effective and reliable player that more often than not fails to receive the levels of praise he warrants. Having finally nailed down a regular first-team spot with Fulham last season, he now appears a legitimate contender to be a regular starter with Ireland.

Nevertheless, Kelly has yet to prove he can operate with distinction in his less familiar position of left-back (he plays right-back normally). But on the basis of his performances last season, he seemed to consistently operate in an assured manner, irrespective of what area of the pitch he played, in contrast with the more error-prone Ward, who was at fault for the crucial second goal against Croatia at the Euros, and did little to compensate for that mistake for the remainder of the tournament.

Is Ireland’s goalkeeping problem as grave as some would suggest?

It’s fair to say that the fans have yet to warm to the idea of Keiren Westwood as Ireland’s number one. To suggest that Shay Given is a tough act to follow would be a considerable understatement, given his legendary status as Ireland’s record cap-holder. And the fact that Westwood is the next goalkeeper in line does not exactly generate great confidence either. The player has seemingly failed to fulfill his undoubted potential thus far in his career, although he was impressive enough during his time at Coventry to make rumours of an impending transfer to Liverpool seem credible.

Yet when the big move to Sunderland eventually came, it did not work out exactly as the Manchester-born goalkeeper would have planned. Consequently, he ended up making only nine appearances for the Wearsiders last term, though in his defence, he was a victim of the managerial upheaval at the club. Moreover, it was more a case of his colleague Simon Mignolet seizing his opportunity to secure the number one jersey, rather than Westwood performing poorly and being dropped.

Nonetheless, a lack of first-team football can hardly be beneficial for someone aspiring to be a regular international and will presumably leave him susceptible to a lack of match sharpness. Consequently, Westwood needs to swiftly get himself back in favour at Sunderland, or Trap may end up making that emergency call to Given even sooner than expected.

Read: Ireland U21s beaten by ten-man Turkey in vital qualifier>

Read: In pictures: Ireland’s new-look squad train in Belgrade>

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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