10.08.2011 at 19:45 - Aviva Stadium
Little surprise that managers Giovanni Trapattoni and Slaven Bilic have picked strong teams for tonight's "Friendly" at the Aviva Stadium (7.45 pm ko).
The rapidly approaching qualifying games in the EURO 2012 competition give this match between the Republic of Ireland and Croatia a special significance. It will not come as a surprise if it is disputed as seriously as a championship contest.
Trapattoni has picked an Irish team that is as close to full strength as injuries will allow. Perhaps as few as three of the team that starts tonight are on trial here.
Stephen Ward fills the left-back position as the manager continues his search for a long-term replacement for the experienced Kevin Kilbane whose international career must be winding down. Ward will have to impress if he is to oust Kilbane for next month's Championship qualifiers against Slovakia and Russia.
Darron Gibson is in central midfield and he, like Ward, is seeking to claim a regular spot. His partner against Coatia, Glenn Whelan, is a constant in this area for Trapattoni but Gibson will know that Keith Andrews, amongst others, is well capable of partnering Whelan.
Shane Long is up front with Robbie Keane against Croatia and he will be brimful of ‘derring-do' after his transfer from Reading to the Premier League club, West Brom. Long's drive and attitude mean he will always be a viable option for Trapattoni but he knows that it is goals will feed his advancement at this level.
It was interesting to hear Sean St. Ledger this week echo goalkeeper Shay Given in endorsing the work of the manager with this growing squad of confident and capable players. Just a glance at the alternatives to the eleven players on duty tonight illustrates how progressive Trapattoni has been in identifying and advancing potential internationals.
Keiren Westwood has emerged as a very able second choice in goal to Shay Given and David Forde also impressed in his appearances. This is Ward's opportunity but he knows the manager has many potential combinations he can use in the defensive line with John O'Shea, Darren O'Dea, Paul McShane, Marc Wilson, Seamus Coleman, Greg Cunningham, Kevin Foley, Damien Delaney, Ciaran Clark all missing but ear-marked for future involvement.
Gibson needs to make a strong statement sooner rather than later for Keith Fahey has continued to grow with Ireland while James McCarthy, Liam Lawrence, Paul Green, Aiden McGeady, Keith Treacy are all viable options for positions across the midfield line.
Long, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane are the clear front-runners for the striking positions but Simon Cox looked confident and effective in the Carling Nations' Cup and there are several others like Cillian Sheridan, Leon Best, Caleb Folan.
Ireland's good run of form at the end of last season proved they can win even when some star players are missing. Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Damien Duff are core members of Ireland's strongest selection but their absence during the Carling Nations Cup did not impact negatively on results.
Croatia have some marvellous players in their team and they have enjoyed spirited contests with Ireland in recent years. Their manager, Slaven Bilic, acknowledged his respect for Ireland when he said yesterday: "Dublin is a hard place to come and grab a point. I personally have a big respect for your team.
"The Irish have always been a good passionate team, solid, aggressive. But Trapattoni has turned them into an extremely well-organised side, he has done a great job here."
Bilic has himself been credited with carrying on the good work of Miroslav Blazevic who helped Croatia develop such an attractive and effective style of play when they finished third in the World Cup of 1998.
Bilic, a hard and committed defender with Everton at one point of his career, offers encouragement to the technically gifted players in his team to turn on the style which is why players like Luka Modric, Kranjcar and strikers Olic and the former Arsenal man, Eduardo, will test Ireland.
The match offers much in prospect and Ireland will be keen to extend their good run this year with the critical UEFA qualifying matches against Slovakia, on September 2, and Russia, on September 6, fast approaching.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given (Aston Villa); Stephen Kelly (Fulham), Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), Sean St. Ledger (Leicester City), Stephen Ward (Wolves); Damien Duff (Fulham), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Darron Gibson (Manchester Utd), Keith Hunt (Wolves); Shane Long (West Brom), Robbie Keane ('Spurs).
Friendly: Republic of Ireland v Croatia, Aviva Stadium 7.45 pm ko.
(Live on Sky Sports 3 from 7.30 pm and on RTE 2 from 10.20 pm)