Fringe players look to boost claims
Impossible to ignore, the excitement surrounding the Republic of Ireland team is shared by supporters and players alike. They are getting giddy with each passing day that brings this summer's Euro 2012 finals ever closer.
For Ireland, it is the first time in a decade that they have qualified for a major tournament - and just the fifth overall. The pain of narrowly missing out on the 2010 World Cup due to Thierry Henry's left hand and William Gallas' bundled goal has been replaced by a real buzz.
Back in Dublin this week to host Czech Republic in a friendly at Aviva Stadium on Wednesday, Giovanni Trapattoni's players have a noticeable bounce in their step. Everyone is soaking up the good vibes and eager to be involved - even the injured duo of Stephen Kelly and Keith Fahey checked in to reaffirm their commitment to the cause.
The other side of that keenness comes from the fact that only 23 players will depart for Poland and Ukraine come June. Trapattoni has insisted that he will stay loyal to most of the players who helped them qualify via a play-off win over Estonia, but there are a few places up still up for grabs. And that has added to the atmosphere around the team's training camp in Malahide.
Injuries have opened the door of opportunity to the uncapped trio of Stephen Henderson, Shane Duffy and James McClean, while midfielder Paul Green returns after a 16-month exile. Whether they can do enough in training and against the Czechs to force their way into the Irish squad remains to be seen, but their presence turns the heat up on those who may have felt their ticket to the finals was locked down.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding McClean following his superb displays for Sunderland, where he has netted three goals in 14 games. A direct winger with the terrifying combination of power, pace and precision, he has been one of the stand-out players in the Premier League this season. Yet, he was originally left out of the Irish squad by Trapattoni with the wily Italian insisting that he was one for the future.
That stance has now changed with McClean very much in the reckoning to make a late push for the Euro squad. And the 22-year-old, who starred for Derry City just last year, becomes the latest Irish league export to make the step up to the senior ranks with six others in the current squad. He is a special talent and that is why he will get his chance against the Czechs.
"I have watched McClean more than twice and I think he is a good player. But the young players must understand what happens in the dressing room and on the pitch for the Irish team. So we will give them a chance," said Marco Tardelli, the assistant manager.
"The team must have experience but sometimes it's possible to put one young player into the team, but the young player must be very good."
Up to 20th in FIFA's world rankings, Ireland have every reason to be confident. Yet, the daunting duels against Croatia, Spain and Italy in three Group C games in June cannot be shied away from. They will be mammoth tests for a team that has been described as 'rigid', 'predictable' and 'unadventrous'.
However, there is a resilience about Trapattoni's side that frustrates opponents as they boast impressive defensive stats - going on an eight-game run of clean sheets - and work tirelessley to shut other teams down. But will that be enough against passmasters like Spain, the dangerous Croatia and the cunning Italians? Possibly, but Trapattoni needs to start devising a Plan B.
Yes, the 4-4-2 system that is based around keeping things tight and making the most of set-pieces works. But Ireland possess players like McClean, Damien Duff, Jonathan Walters and Shane Long who have really hurt teams by stretching them out wide. And with Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle able to wreak havoc in the middle, supported by a willing runner from midfield in Keith Andrews, James McCarthy or Fahey, all signs suggest that a switch to a 4-3-3 set-up might actually work.
Of course, Trapattoni can be ultra conserative at the best of times and confusing his players with a new style of play with just three friendlies before the Euro finals might seem foolish to him. Nevertheless, it could be the difference of advancing at the tournament or making an early exit.
The confidence and the quality is there in the squad, now it's time to see some bravery from the manager. Ireland have done incredibly well to book a place at the Euros, so it would be a shame if they take that for granted and not look to keep improving.
After all, that confidence will quickly disappear if the winning run turns to an embarrassing stretch of defeats. Football can be a fickle game.
• Twitter: @garethmaher