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Aug 12, 2010

A lot done, plenty more to do for Ireland

A large crowd turned out on Wednesday evening to witness Republic of Ireland put in an admirable performance against Argentina at the redeveloped Aviva Stadium.

The final scoreline of a 1-0 defeat against the two-time World Cup winners was credible enough, and Gonzalo Higuain was clearly offside in the build-up to Angel Di Maria's goal.

The purpose of this friendly, other than showing off the Aviva Stadium, was for Giovanni Trapattoni's team to prepare for their upcoming 2012 European Championship qualifying campaign.

That meant there was little chance of the players in green shirts adopting a joga bonito-style of play. Instead, they stuck to the flat 4-4-2 formation and relied on set-pieces and breakaways to create chances.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with that as it led to Ireland coming through their last qualifying group unbeaten, but there is a noticeable lack of creativity in their general play and that is something that could ultimately cost them.

Paired in Group 2 along with Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Armenia and Andorra, the expectations for Ireland are to qualify automatically for the finals in Poland and Ukraine. However, that could prove to be a tough task.

On Wednesday, they were missing a lengthy list of players that included Sean St Ledger, Marc Wilson, Glenn Whelan, Liam Lawrence, Aiden McGeady, Shane Long, Caleb Folan and Kevin Doyle. Although, from the 15 players that did grace the pitch in Dublin, it was obvious that some areas in the team need to be strengthened. The most immediate would be the striking department, which fails to inspire confidence once one looks past Robbie Keane and Doyle.

Cillian Sheridan was given a chance to impress against Argentina, although he went missing so early in the match that it was a wasted opportunity. For a striker who is meant to hold the ball up and link play, he rarely gets involved in the action.

So who are the other possible striking options? The obvious ones are Folan, Long and Best, but there are others further down the pecking order that deserve a closer look. Among those is Anthony Stokes, who was the star player for the Ireland Uner-21s on Tuesday evening in a 5-0 thrashing of Estonia as he scored twice and set up two others. If he can keep scoring at club level for Hibernian then he should get more chances.

Then there is Celtic's Daryl Murphy, Ipswich Town's Jonathan Walters and even West Brom's Simon Cox, who qualifies for Ireland through his grandmother. However, they have not popped up on Trapattoni's radar for quite some time.

The other conundrum surrounds the selection of Paul McShane at right back. While there is no doubt that the Hull City man is fully committed, he is also a massive liability at international level.

With more assured full backs like Fulham's Stephen Kelly and Wolves' Kevin Foley on the bench, there was a lot of head-scratching at the Aviva Stadium as to why McShane continues to get the nod to start.

If McShane is a disaster waiting to be exposed, then security can be found in the central areas of the team. And it is that solid spine which should help to keep them in contention for automatic qualification.

On the plus side, Paul Green has emerged as a real find. In his three games for Ireland so far, he has shown that he is ready to become Whelan's new midfield partner and jump ahead of both Keith Andrews and Darron Gibson in the pecking order.

Green can act as a driving force from the centre, but he does not possess the eye for a pass or the finishing power that Wigan's James McCarthy does. If Trapattoni is to guide his team to automatic qualification then room needs to be found in his system for McCarthy.

While things are definitely on the right track for Ireland, it is now time to gather up some steam and show that they can't be easily derailed when it comes to the all-important games. Gareth Maher covers Irish football for ESPNsoccernet. Check out his website, www.garethmaher.com, to read more of his writing

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