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Keane set to become latest centurion

When he trots out at the newly-opened Aviva Stadium on Wednesday night for his 100th cap for Republic of Ireland, Robbie Keane will be greeted with a hero's welcome.

Keane, 30, might be accustomed to receiving a strong reception quite regularly from Irish supporters, but there will be more than a tinge of emotion packed into the collective cheer that greets him this time around.

Once the whistle blows to signal the start of the friendly against Argentina, Keane will join a limited club of just four players by becoming an Irish centurion. He is already the country's leading goalscorer and the current captain, although this honour is extra special.

There have been many great servants for Ireland, like Liam Brady, John Giles and Roy Keane, who never got the chance to reach such a milestone, so the popular striker's achievement should firmly secure his place as one of the country's greatest ever players.

It was obvious from an early age that the Dubliner had big things ahead of him when he stood out at schoolboy level for Crumlin United. From there he linked up with Wolverhampton Wanderers, who gave him his debut at just 17.

Keane's breakthrough at club level prompted Mick McCarthy to draft him into the Ireland senior squad in the same season and he made his debut in Olomouc against Czech Republic in March 1998. Ever since then he has been a hugely important player for Ireland.

From taking over as captain in 2006 to becoming top scorer (43 goals in 99 games), Keane's contribution over 12 years of service has been crucial with his goals often proving the difference in tight games.

The Tottenham Hotspur frontman was named as the FAI Senior International Player of the Year earlier this week, although joining Steve Staunton, Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane as a centurion will mean a whole lot more than any individual award ever could.

"I still have that buzz and enthuasiasm for the game. I always want to play for my country. It's hard to believe, though, it'll be my 100th cap," Keane said. "I know I'm very fortunate to have reached 100 caps, but hopefully there will be a few more to come after. I certainly feel I've a few more goals and caps left in me."

There has been some debate recently over Keane's legacy with suggestions that he doesn't deserve all of the praise that he has been getting due to his much-travelled career at club level.

The argument made by his detractors is that he has failed to establish himself as a key player for any one club after playing for seven different teams during a 13-year stretch. But his international stats stand up for themselves with an average of 0.43 goals per game.

On top of his goals, Keane has emerged as a leading figure in the Irish dressing room. Always a vocal presence within the squad, he has shown that he can deliver when it matters most with his goal against Germany at the 2002 World Cup and his strike against France in last November's World Cup qualifying play-off standing out.

Yet for all of his individual efforts, the Tallaght native still craves more team success with Ireland. So the upcoming qualifying campaign for the 2012 European Championship is hugely important for him as it might represent his last effort to play in a major international tournament.

"I want to help us qualify for the European Championships," he said. "If you look at the games we've been involved in, we've come very close on occasion, but we've made mistakes or we just didn't have that bit of luck we needed. I certainly feel we should have been involved in more tournaments than we have recently."

Along with using the game to showcase the superb Aviva Stadium - recently opened after a multi-million euro makeover - the friendly against Argentina gives Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni another opportunity to prepare his team for those qualifiers.

The Italian may miss the game due to falling ill, but he has selected a team that mixes experience with some new faces as Paul Green, Keith Fahey and Cillian Sheridan all get another chance to impress.

While Trapattoni has done well to strengthen his pool of players, there are few options up front other than Keane and Kevin Doyle. That might be one area that still needs work, but in almost every other position Ireland now look solid.

Expectations will be high going into Group 2 of qualifying after narrowly missing out on this summer's World Cup. But if they are to achieve their target of clinching automatic qualification, then they will once again have to heavily rely on their newest centurion.

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

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