Veteran Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni has done so well with the Republic of Ireland since taking over early last year that the FAI extended his contract until 2012 before he had even secured a World Cup play-off place for the Boys in Green.
Under the sprightly 70-year-old the Irish have regained credibility after a disastrous spell under the inexperienced Steve Staunton and they went through their World Cup Group 8 campaign unbeaten. Trap and the FAI are not happy that Sepp Blatter “moved the goalposts” very late in the day by introducing seedings for the play-offs which saw The Republic end up as the only country of bottom seeds to be drawn at home in the first leg.
But Trap is confident and says the next two games will be like “cup finals”. He said: “We have shown throughout our qualification campaign that we can perform against any team. We have come out of a group containing Italy the current world champions and we got positive results against them. The fact that we are one of only five teams unbeaten in the qualifiers gives us comfort going into the play-offs.”
“I have said all along that I would have preferred to play our first leg away from home. Now it’s important not to concede in the first leg at Croke Park.”
The Irish have not been prolific goalscorers at their temporary home Croke Park. In 12 games at the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, they have only scored 12 goals. But Trapp’s teams are difficult to beat and unlike previous Irish managers Giovanni’s record in friendlies may not be great, but in the competitive stakes he is a winner.
It’s generally agreed that Trapattoni has done a good job with a squad that is not exactly bursting with world-class talent. Nearly all of French manager Raymond Domenech’s team have experience in the group stages of Champions League, while Manchester United’s John O’Shea is the only Irish player playing in the Champions League this season.
Trapattoni is a cautious manager and it could also be said he is a lucky one. The Irish were somewhat fortunate that Georgia were forced to switch their home game from Tbilisi to Mainz in Germany in September last year where the Irish picked up three vital away points. Further good fortune came with a debatable penalty against Georgia at Croke Park and the early dismissal of Italy’s Pazzini in the game in Bari last April.
Last time Ireland played in Paris in October 2004 it was estimated there were 30,000 supporters in the stadium. This time the French FA is trying to ensure that this will not happen again by allocating only 10 per cent of the tickets, 8,000, to the FAI. Irish airlines have increased prices of flights from Dublin to Paris, but it’s expected that thousands more Irish supporters will make their way to Paris for the second leg via ferries and the Eurotunnel from England.
Domenech has raised the stakes somewhat by describing the Irish as the England “B” team because all their players play in the English Leagues.
Every press conference Trapattoni gives he is asked for his opinion on two players, one who clearly wants to play for his country again and the other who doesn’t want to. Andy Reid, who likes to play the guitar, clashed with the manager after a late-night singsong in Mainz last year. Andy made the subs bench on a few occasions under Trap, but didn’t get to play and was dropped from the squad. The Sunderland playmaker has lost weight and says he is anxious to add to his 27 caps, but Trap persists with players like Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan and Darron Gibson in midfield.
Stephen Ireland is another who has never played under Trap. The Manchester City midfielder scored four goals in six appearances when Steve Staunton was manager, but says he does not want to play international football again. Still Trapp continues to extend the olive branch to the City player.
Steven Reid, who missed most of the qualifying campaign through injury, was left out of the squad to face France. Steve Finnan, who like Reid, played in the opening two games against Georgia and Montenegro, also missed out as Trap stuck with the players who have got him to this stage.
The Irish don’t have a great record in World Cup play-offs, losing to Spain in a one-off game in Paris in 1965 and to Belgium over two legs in 1997. But they did beat Iran to qualify for the 2002 finals. On paper France will be odds-on favourites, but of course games are won on the pitch, not on paper. With the experienced and lucky Trapattoni in charge, anything can happen.