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Ghosts of the past spur Ireland on

There is a joke often used in the Republic of Ireland training camp that when a player makes a huge error or has a nightmare performance they are 'having a Macedonia'.

While only a select few of the current squad featured in the 1-1 draw ten years ago in Skopje that denied Ireland a place in Euro 2000, the memory is still strong for every Irish player as it acts as a warning.

Of course, that draw was not the first time that Ireland tripped up against an opponent they were expected to beat, as they lost 3-2 to Macedonia in the same city three years earlier and there have been other forgettable nights since. But as Giovanni Trapattoni's team prepare for their opening game in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, they are taking that joke quite seriously as they don't want to be left embarrased by Armenia - a team trailing 60 places behind them in the FIFA World Rankings.

There are a lot of factors conspiring to make this a difficult game for Ireland; several key players are injured, the heat in Yerevan will be almost unbearable and Armenia have a good record at home. Yet, there is an expectation that this Irish team needs to get off to a positive start, especially with tougher games to come against Russia and Slovakia.

The word preached by both Trapattoni and his assistant Marco Tardelli in the build-up to this game is that there can not be any scapegoats or finger pointing. Ireland's qualification hopes simply are in their own hands.

"We will not look for excuses. We will miss Damien [Duff], but I remember against Italy, he did not play because he was injured," said Trapattoni. "We're a team with good options. It's not my habit to look for excuses.

"At home they [Armenia] are hard, they make an impression, it's no excuse but they can also provoke us. We must be calm and play with the same mentality of the last campaign."

It is that sort of straight talking that has ignited an atmosphere of quiet confidence within the squad as they set a target of taking six points from the trip to Yerevan and Tuesday's home game against Andorra.

Yes, Damien Duff is out along with Keith Andrews and Paul McShane - two of whom were in contention to start - although there are able replacements to call on in Aiden McGeady, Paul Green and Stephen Kelly. However, the most worrying statistic for Trapattoni is that 10 players in his squad did not feature for their clubs last weekend, so he will be forced to select a team that may not be as match fit as they should be going into this qualifier.

While many of those have spent the bulk of the summer worrying where their club future lies, the focus is now firmly on European qualification with veteran defender Kevin Kilbane stating that topping Group B is not beyond them.

"The last campaign gave us real belief that we can go on and qualify for these European Championships," said Kilbane, who is set to win his 105th cap on Friday. "We haven't qualified [for a major tournament] in five or six years, so the young lads have never had a real chance to shine. We need to qualify so they can have their chance on the big stage."

There may not have been a huge amount of personnel changes since narrowly losing to France in the infamous World Cup qualifying play-off last November, although the few new faces that have been introduced to the set-up have strengthened the overall squad.

Green is likely to fill the void in central midfield left by Andrews' absence, which means the 27-year-old will experience his first competitive start. Despite being a late-comer to the international scene, the Derby County player has already shown in his three friendly appearances that he is ready to make the step up.

Trapattoni is unlikely to spring many surprises with his starting eleven, but the big call that he has to make is on the left wing with Duff, Stephen Hunt and Keith Treacy all unavailable due to injury. McGeady, now with Spartak Moscow, may be favourite to start but Birmingham City's Keith Fahey could get the nod due to his ability to offer defensive cover.

This is certainly not the strongest Irish squad that has opened a qualifying campaign, although a sense of belief has evolved since that night in Paris when Thierry Henry's handball caused such heartache. Rather than falling apart after that incident, they have become a much stronger unit.

Now, though, is the time to prove that they win the games that they need to. There can be no room for error in this qualifying campaign and no smiles will be flashed if they 'have a Macedonia' in their first game.

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


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