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Sep 8, 2010

Best yet to come from impressive Ireland

There were noticeable gaps in the Aviva Stadium for the Republic of Ireland's first competitive game at the redeveloped ground for their second Euro 2012 qualifier.

• Ireland 3-1 Andorra: Keane on form
• Euro 2012 qualifying photo gallery

But when Russia come to visit the Dublin venue next month those seats will be filled as the expectation levels for Giovanni Trapattoni's team are beginning to reach new heights.

The Italian has been preaching for some time about the ability of his players to emerge as a real force on the international stage, but it is only now that people are starting to believe him.

Having scrapped a narrow 1-0 win away to Armenia last week, Ireland collected all three points in a comfortable 3-1 victory over Andorra on Tuesday to move top of Group B. It may not have been an exhibition of free-flowing football, but it was exactly what they needed.

With hopes of clinching automatic qualification for the finals in two year's time, Trapattoni knows that his team must win the games against the 'weaker' teams in their group. So far, they have done that.

"We can take confidence now. We have started the campaign and we are top of the table," Trapattoni said after the game. "I am glad not only with the result, but I am glad because the team understood what I wanted them to do.

"Now the team is playing the way I want it to. We can play good football and when there are difficult situations, we defend those situations. We have six points, like Slovakia, but now we have to look to next month. The competition starts now."

There was nothing spectacular about the win over Andorra as Kevin Kilbane opened the scoring on 14 minutes with a strong header after Liam Lawrence had floated over a corner kick.

Ireland kept probing for that second goal and they got it on 41 minutes. Lawrence and Kevin Doyle hassled Sergi Moreno for the ball, won possession and Doyle blasted in from long range. Everything was going according to plan.

Then Andorra landed a sucker punch when Christian Martinez fired in unexpectedly just before half-time. But there was no sign of panicking from Ireland as they picked up from they left off after the interval and eventually got a third goal.

While there were few areas in the team that looked weak during the 90 minutes, Trapattoni knows that sterner tests will come next month with the double header of Russia and Slovakia.

The one personnel change that is likely to happen for that Russia game is Damien Duff taking over the left-wing role from Aiden McGeady, who was largely ineffective until the 54th minute when he set up Robbie Keane to make it 3-1. It was a rare glimpse of what the Spartak Moscow winger can do.

In many ways, McGeady is the ultimate 'almost' player. If he were an actor, he would be Matt LeBlanc - someone who has promised so much for so long, but has never really delivered even when given a starring role.

Once Duff and Stephen Hunt return to full fitness, the 24-year-old will surely slip down the pecking order. There is no consistency with him and he would be better as an impact substitute rather than a regular starter.

Ireland still need to find a good back-up striker though. Once the tactic of getting the most out of Keane and Doyle is exhausted, there are few options to turn to that can make a real difference.

Trapattoni has tried everyone from Leon Best to Shane Long, although few have really stood out. Perhaps the Celtic duo of Anthony Stokes and Daryl Murphy can break back into the squad if they impress at club level or Stoke City's Jonathan Walters will be afforded a chance.

The reason for needing another striker is that this Irish team tend to rely on the same outlets for all of their goals - set-pieces, long balls into Doyle and deadly finishing from Keane - and that may not last throughout a long qualification campaign.

That is something Trapattoni will monitor over the coming weeks. For now, he can be pleased with the start that his team have made to Group B and knowing that there is a lot more still to come from this team.

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

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