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May 27, 2010

Trapattoni sets the bar even higher for Ireland

It is one of those infamous clips that will forever hold a place in the history of international football, but not many people in Ireland want to be reminded of Thierry Henry's handball last November.

The Hand of Le Fraud or the Thief of Saint Denis, as the incident has been labelled, played a part in France, not Ireland, qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. But Giovanni Trapattoni's team have moved on from then.

Of course, the hurt of missing out on the finals in South Africa still exists with defender Sean St Ledger stating that he will never forget what happened in the build-up to William Gallas' goal.

However, Trapattoni is busy preparing for the 2012 European Championships with the qualifiers set to kick off in September. Ireland were drawn in Group B and the Ireland manager reckons they have an excellent chance of topping their group.

"I think if we play the same as we did against Bulgaria, Italy and France [last year], then I am not afraid," said Trapattoni. "It's a difficult enough group. I saw Russia [in action]. They have some players in England. Slovakia and Macedonia are not easy, their players also play in big countries."

There is still some time before Ireland take on Armenia in their first qualifier, but they have been busy using the summer to introduce some new players to the squad and work on key areas. A training camp took place in Malahide this month and even though exciting players like Marc Wilson, Stephen Ward, David Meyler and James McCarthy dropped out through injury, it has been a successful exercise.

On Tuesday night, they took on World Cup-bound Paraguay and emerged as 2-1 victors in a tame friendly at the RDS in Dublin. There were few moments in the game to excite the 16,722 fans that turned up.

However, it proved to be a useful exercise for Trapattoni as he named his strongest starting eleven, with the exception of injured duo Shay Given and Richard Dunne, and effectively encouraged his team to pick up where they left off against France six months ago.

Liam Lawrence worked hard on the right wing, Keith Andrews impressed in central midfield and Damien Duff showed glimpses of his ability to embarrass opposition defenders. But it was Kevin Doyle, recently linked with a move to Arsenal, who stood out more than anyone else - even Paraguay's Roque Santa Cruz.

The Ireland manager wouldn't have learnt anything new about his first eleven, but they did get another game [and another win] together and that could prove to be crucial when the Euro 2012 qualifiers roll around later this year.

On the plus side, Keith Fahey, Paul Green and Cillian Sheridan all made their senior bows with Derby County midfielder Green standing out in his brief cameo, which suggested that he may be good enough to push Andrews for a starting place. He might even start in Friday's friendly against Algeria.

Green had been part of this month's training camp that took place in Malahide, which was used to take a closer look at some of the fringe players that Trapattoni has been monitoring. Fahey and Sheridan also featured in it, along with Brian Murphy, Greg Cunningham and Shane Duffy.

Injuries meant that Marc Wilson, Duffy, Stephen Ward, David Meyler, James McCarthy and Keith Treacy had to drop out of the camp, but Trapattoni is set to give that quintet opportunities in the near future to impress.

The Italian is most definitely moving forward with his plans for Euro 2012. Perhaps he is even more motivated to qualify for that tournament due to how Ireland missed out on this summer's World Cup.

"I have reminded the players, life goes on," he said. "Now it's important that they forget the past. We have to remember our performances [last year] and continue on our way because we have another great aim - the European Championships.

"Our group is a good group, but if we continue this way with this mentality, we believe we have a good chance. We have this new objective and we can aspire to that and look forward to that."

Whatever his motivation, Ireland will be a much better team once the qualifiers do roll around. But that is not to suggest they will have the same faces in their starting eleven as many could be fighting for their places. This summer presents an opportunity for many of the Irish players to secure moves to new clubs. Some will be stepping up, while others will have to lower their expectations and join a club where first-team football is guaranteed.

Amongst those rumoured to be on the move are Kieren Westwood, St Ledger, Kevin Kilbane, Liam Lawrence, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Hunt and Robbie Keane. For those seven, this could be a crucial summer.

Only Keane would be likely to keep his place in Trapattoni's team if he wasn't to secure a move away from Tottenham Hotspur, where he has clearly slipped down the pecking order having spent the second half of last season on loan at Celtic. The others need to move on to reignite their club careers.

Now that Trapattoni is aiming a lot higher with automatic qualification on his mind, he will be expecting his players to be featuring regularly for their respective clubs. And he is no longer short of options with plenty of new players ready to step up if called on. So there could be a new look to his team if those who almost led Ireland to the World Cup don't sort out their futures at club level.

• Gareth Maher covers Irish football for Soccernet. Check out his website www.garethmaher.com to read more of his writing.

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