fby Ed Leahy
The curtain finally comes down on the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign this evening as Ireland entertain Kazakhstan in their Group C clash at the Aviva Stadium, kick-off 7.45pm.
The campaign, which began with a win against tonight’s opponents, albeit a fortuitous one, should also end in victory. However what has happened in between can, at best, be described as forgettable.
Ireland never recovered from the 6-1 humiliation at home to group winners Germany and Giovanni Trapattoni’s side failed to beat the other group challengers Sweden and Austria over four games, with the only other victories coming against the lowly Faroe Islands.
Euro 2012 qualification was quickly forgotten as Trapattoni’s antiquated style was shown up, and when results were not forthcoming, the Italian’s tenure came to a premature end as qualification hopes were dashed over five days in September.
Despite Ireland’s dearth of appearances at major finals over the past twenty years, it is rare that the Boys in Green have had nothing to play for with two group games remaining – there will be no request for a 33-team tournament this time around.
And while 30,000 Ireland fans travelled to Poland last summer, it will be interesting to see whether half as many make their way down Lansdowne Road for tonight’s encounter.
It has been just over a month since Trapattoni’s departure and the FAI have decided to take their time to appoint a successor.
The fact that Ireland’s next competitive fixture will be next September appears to have influenced their decision, perhaps to save six months salary before appointing the new manager.
And while we are far from privy to the inner sanctum of the FAI war office, it certainly appeared that a ready-made successor was waiting in the wings as the out of work Martin O’Neill appeared immediately available.
O’Neill’s appointment would have made these final two games a lot more interesting and what better way to say goodbye to a terrible campaign than to welcome a new manager into the hot-seat.
Surely a full house would have turned up to show their support if it was the likeable Derry man leading the team out at the Aviva tonight. And those 30,000 additional seat sales would have been most welcome down Abbostown way – it would have paid the new manager’s salary.
So no new manager, but a King in charge, even if Noel's reign was doomed before it began.
The interim boss has only been in the job for one week and while his team formation was ridiculed, and decisions to name players out of their natural position scoffed at, he has certainly made an impression.
The affable Dubliner makes a strong argument that a high-profile manager might not be needed for international football as long as the best players available are picked and there is content in the camp.
It would be unfair to judge King on the Germany game. The match was always going to be a backs-to-the-wall performance, considering the suspensions, lack of confidence and general malaise throughout the squad.
But as football fans, we are expecting big things from all the King’s men this evening and while the manager believes in his 4-2-3-1 formation, the personnel should change significantly from the energy 11 that were picked to run all night against the Germans.
Andy Reid was welcomed back to the international fold by the interim boss and will surely get a chance to remind the Irish fans and media what he is capable of and how he can influence a game, especially against weaker opposition.
Kazakhstan are much weaker opposition, with a scoreless draw against Austria the only positive to be taken from their own campaign – they were held to a 1-1 draw with the Faroes on Friday.
Tonight’s visitors will certainly look to frustrate and will defend deep in the hope of keeping a clean sheet, but if King learned one thing from Friday’s defeat to Germany it will be how patient passing, mixed with moments of creativity, will unlock doors, create chances and yield dividends.
After Friday’s team selection, it would be a brave, or perhaps foolish, man to try to second-guess the gaffer’s eleven that will line out at Lansdowne tonight.
Man of the match in Cologne, David Forde will surely start, while experienced centre-halves John O’Shea and Richard Dunne are likely to return to the heart of the defence.
Captain for the night, Seamus Coleman should again start at right back and Marc Wilson could return to the left-back position as his energy might not be needed in front of the back four. Both full-backs will surely be encouraged to get forward at every opportunity, especially with two holding midfielders covering space left at the back.
The hard work in midfield should easily be accounted for by James McCarthy playing alongside Darron Gibson, which would leave King with carte blanche to play a creative three behind the front man, who will undoubtedly be Robbie Keane.
Andy Reid, Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady would certainly make for an interesting evening, although James McClean’s energy might get him the nod ahead of the Nottingham Forrest man, while the more conservative approach would be to play Glenn Whelan alongside Gibson with McCarthy resuming his advanced role in the middle of the three.
Anthony Stokes will feel unlucky to be left out and rightly so as King’s decision to play the Celtic man on Friday proved to be an inspired choice.
Stokes is a real option for Ireland’s future campaigns and while he was criticised for his finishing on Friday, the lapses in concentration or heavy touches could certainly be put down to the amount of work he was doing tracking back and closing down play.
King’s tenure will come to a close shortly after 9:30pm tonight and while the interim boss was anxious that his tenure might be perceived as a dud, an entertaining, morale-boosting victory with a goal or three to spare will make the incoming manager’s job a lot easier ahead of Euro 2016 qualification.