“Happy memories,” Robbie Keane says with a smile when reminded of the first time he played against Germany as a senior Republic of Ireland international.
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“Forget women, golf, even hurling, this is the best moment of my life!” was Keane’s reaction at the time. The date was 5th June 2002 and the occasion was of course the 2002 FIFA World Cup and the young Dubliner’s first ever goal at the final stages of that tournament. The Irish build up to that World Cup had of course been overshadowed by the infamous Saipan incident, of which there is no need to go into details here. Keane’s goal against the Germans came in the dying moments of that game and the last gasp equalizer kept the Republic’s campaign alive beyond the Group stage, with that game against Germany and the dramatic late equalizer against Spain later in the tournament emphasizing the team spirit – and possibly siege mentality – that prevailed within that Irish camp.
Ten years on and the Republic of Ireland has reached just one further major tournament – that the misadventure in Poland during the summer just gone.
For the Germans, having endured their worst performance ever at a major tournament – elimination at the Group stages of Euro 2000, while dismally finishing bottom of their Group – that stark footballing “disaster” (and a limp exit from the France ’98 World Cup), led German footballing authorities to completely overhaul their entire youth strategy – a new strategy that became fully functional in 2002. Having reached the semi-finals and one final of each of the four major senior international tournaments played since the 2006 World Cup, that overhaul appears to be paying dividends for Die Mannschaft, with the German national team ranked number two in the FIFA world rankings and likely to provide the biggest threat to Spain retaining their World Cup title in 20 month’s time.
Oh, how the Irish could do with a similar overhaul of policy and structures at underage level. Whilst no-one is suggesting that the FAI has the resources of Die Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), to at least look at the German blueprint (or possibly even to attempt to adapt it to their own structures as the English FA has done over the last couple of years) and implement such simple changes as having under age players playing on smaller pitches and with smaller goals than adults, with more emphasis on building skills than winning, would at least be a step in the right direction.
Players such as the wonderful attacking midfielders Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, Toni Kroos and Marco Reus (to name but a few of Germany’s top current young internationals – the average age of the current German national team is just 23 and-a-half) are all direct products of the overhauled German youth football system with all 36 clubs in the two Bundesliga divisions obliged to operate centrally regulated academies before being given a licence to play in the league.
It is widely agreed that the most significant change in the German football structure was the DFB insisting that in these new academies at least 12 players in each intake have to be eligible to play for Germany. Since that rule change, the number of top class German players coming through the system has increased dramatically and the German national team is now reaping the benefits.
Contrast that with top Irish players, whose predominant destination is England. With the English Premier League (and to a lesser extent, the Championship) having become global leagues, with players attracted there from all over the world, the resulting saturation of foreign talent and competition for places has caused a dramatic decrease in Irish talent reaching the top level of club football over the last decade. This season, Aiden McGeady is the only Irish international competing in the Group stages of the Champions League – and he is plying his trade in Russia!
Even without this week’s raft of injury withdrawals, the Republic of Ireland would be right up against it against what is a quality German outfit. Now, with three likely starters (Seán St. Ledger, Richard Dunne and Glenn Whelan) all ruled out of Friday night’s clash, achieving a positive result is looking more and more like, if not a mission impossible, then certainly a mission improbable for the Boys in Green.
Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, looks likely to attempt to combat the Germans’ expected 4-3-3 formation with a 4-3-3 formation (or more realistically: 4-5-1 considering the amount of possession the Germans are certain to enjoy) of his own and he is set to break from the rigid 4-4-2 formation he has previously employed. When asked how he intended to stop Real Madrid star Mesut Özil this week, the Italian replied: “We put three midfielders on the pitch and one midfielder is for Ozil.” Keith Fahey is expected to come into that midfield alongside fellow returnee Keith Andrews and James McCarthy. On Tuesday evening, 21 year-old Conor Clifford was called up to the Irish squad, although he is not yet a regular in the Irish Under 21 setup. This late call up makes it even more likely that Trapattoni will indeed employ a 4-3-3 (or more accurately; 4-5-1) formation on Friday night.
At the back, Darren O’Dea is expected to line up alongside John O’Shea in central defence with Paul McShane, Stephen Kelly and Séamus Coleman likely to fight it out for the two remaining defensive berths. Goalkeeper Kieren Westwood only trained in the gym on Tuesday, but he is set to be fit for Friday.
The attacking third is likely to comprise Aiden McGeady, Robbie Keane and one of Simon Cox, Jonathan Walters and Shane Long. Cox is favorite to start and will likely be employed on the left wing with McGeady on the opposite flank and Keane leading the line on his own. Such is set to be the German dominance (as well as Die Mannschaft‘s tendency to attack from wide areas) on Friday night that McGeady and Cox will end up becoming auxiliary full-backs and the formation will be much more akin to 4-5-1 than the 4-3-3 Trapattoni is making it out to be.
The deployment of Robbie Keane as a lone striker is baffling. Keane has neither the pace nor the strength necessary to hold the ball up – both essential attributes of a lone front man. Were anyone to lead the line on his own, it should be Shane Long, who is exceptionally quick, great in the air and physically strong, as he has demonstrated for West Brom time and time again in the English Premier League.
The last time (and possibly only time competitively) that Trapattoni broke from his rigid 4-4-2 system as Republic of Ireland manager, was the 4-0 hammering to Spain in the summer. If Germany are up for it, a similar scoreline on Friday night, whilst unlikely, is not beyond the realms of possibility, such is the paucity of experience that this Irish team is likely to have of playing together.
Robbie Keane is the only Irish player to survive from that famous 1-1 draw in Ibaraki ten years ago and on the night Ireland more than deserved at the very least to draw the game. The Boys in Green in fact had more than enough chances to win that game comfortably.
The German performance that night was tepid and they sat back on their lead following Miroslav Klose’s (who is also the only German survivor from that night) 19th minute opener. After that match, German football icon, Franz Beckenbauer stated: “You could have thrown every German player into a bag except for (goalkeeper) Oliver Kahn and if you had kicked that bag, anyone who would have been kicked would have deserved it.”
Not a lot has changed (aside from personnel and management) within the Irish setup during the intervening ten years since 2002 – though senior internationals do now enjoy somewhat better conditions than back then. At underage and grassroots level though, the setup is almost identical to 2002. While Irish club football has flirted with full-time professionalism during the middle part of the last decade, the economic collapse of recent years has meant that full-time professionalism of Irish clubs could not continue.
With such little change to the Irish footballing landscape since Japan ten summers ago and considering the fact that the German youth structure is almost unrecognizable in its positive progression from little over a decade ago, leads to the conclusion that there can only be one result from Friday night’s match (barring a miracle of Moscow 2011 proportions) and that is a comfortable win for the three time world champions.
Republic of Ireland: Westwood, Coleman, O’Shea, O’Dea, Ward, McGeady, Andrews, McCarthy, Fahey, Cox, Walters.
Germany: Neuer; Schmelzer, Badstuber, Mertesacker, Boateng; Schweinsteiger Khedira; Müller, Özil, Reus; Klose.