By Ronan Murphy
At 17.00 BST this evening in Astana, Ireland will kick off their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign against Kazakhstan. Not a minute before. It's only when the players take to the pitch will we see what lies ahead. However, that hasn't stopped media and fans alike calling for the head of Giovanni Trapattoni.
Ireland's performances at Euro 2012 were disappointing to say the least, but before June 2012, the wily Italian was a hero in many people's eyes. Now the same supporters have written off Trapattoni, his tactics, and this campaign as a whole.
Until we see what happens on the pitch, we can't truly judge whether Trapattoni is developing the team, and ushering in a new era. Sure, there are five changes to his preferred XI in Poland, but four of those are necessary. Shay Given and Damien Duff are post-tournament retirees, while Richard Dunne is injured and Keith Andrews is suspended for the opener.
On paper, Trap's lineup to face Kazakhstan looks to be a 4-4-2 with Jonathan Walters coming in up front to replace Kevin Doyle. The last time the Stoke forward partnered Robbie Keane in attack, Ireland beat Estonia 4-0 in Tallinn. During Mick McCarthy's tenure as Irish boss, Keane was regularly accompanied by Niall Quinn up front, and the Tallaght striker thrived alongside the big man. Walters has shown with Stoke and Ireland that he's extremely capable of holding up the ball and knocking it down, and this partnership should surely cause Kazakhstan trouble.
Mountain to climb | Trapattoni has to restore his reputation on the road to World Cup 2014
The most dismay from the team announcement comes from James McClean's exclusion in favour of Simon Cox. In a standard 4-4-2, this seems a strange decision as McClean is an in-form Premier League winger while Cox is a frontman in the Championship. However, looking at Cox's performances for Ireland, most recently against Serbia where he was deployed in a variety of positions, the hard-working Nottingham Forest forward has the potential to make an impact.
Last March against Macedonia, Trapattoni urged his wingers to cut inside and shoot from distance. This instruction led to Aiden McGeady's first international goal, coming from outside the box after just two minutes in that Euro 2012 qualifier. Cox has a blistering long-range shot, and it could be for this reason that he has been selected on the wing. He has started well at new club Nottingham Forest, and his League Cup strike against Wigan shows that he is more than capable of adding to his tally of three international goals.
Darren O'Dea replaces Richard Dunne at central defence, and a year on from that famous night in Moscow, O'Dea will be hoping for another Irish clean sheet. In goal, Keiren Westwood comes in for Shay Given, and proved himself to be an adequate replacement with some good saves against Serbia last month.
The biggest change, however, should come in midfield where necessity has seen James McCarthy awarded his first competitive start. The Wigan midfielder is the best passer of the ball in the Irish squad, highlighted by an 87 per cent completion rate during the 2011-12 Premier League season, with an average of 46 passes per game. Trapattoni's team is often chastised for failing to hold onto possession, but with McCarthy picking up the ball in the middle of the park, a team-mate should be found much more often.
Trapattoni's experimentation against Serbia demonstrated a willingness to make changes, but to introduce a wholesale shift in tactics could prove detrimental. Instead, a gradual approach should see this Irish team develop a more passing game while also putting essential points on the board early on.
It's far too early to write off Trapattoni or this campaign, because tonight Ireland will sit near the top of the table with three points after a comfortable win against Kazakhstan.
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