'ireland won't be easy for us'
Man City legend Kinkladze fears Irish too strong for new crop of Georgians
GEORGI Kinkladze smiles when asked who would win a battle between himself and his old foe from those Manchester derbies of the mid-1990s, Roy Keane.
"I enjoyed playing against Roy and he was probably the best player I played against," says Kinkladze, the tiny but talented Georgian midfielder who lit up English football in spells with Manchester City and Derby County. "We always had good battles.
"He was a tough opponent for everyone, not just the players in midfield who were directly up against him but the whole team, we did not like playing against a team that had Roy Keane in it.
"We are both in our early 40s now so if we played each other in a training game I don't know who'd win. We're too old now, we will leave the football to the next generation."
In historical terms, Keane is on the winning side. The Corkman and Kinkladze faced each other four times in the Premier League between 1995 and 2001, and Keane's United side won all four, the most memorable a 3-2 win for the visitors at Maine Road in 1996.
But Kinkladze, no longer working in football full-time as he manages a chain of gyms in Moscow, fears that Keane will have the upper hand again in an international battle tomorrow.
Here in Tbilisi, there is a great deal of expectation about this new campaign. Under Temuri Ketsbaia, Georgia had a decent home record in the qualifiers for the last World Cup, conceding just two goals in four home games (one of them scored by Spain four minutes from time).
Striker Levan Mchedlidze has started the new Serie A season with Empoli in decent form, and their hope is that they can finally take some points off Ireland after four attempts.
Yet Kinkladze, who played against Ireland in a 2-1 win for Brian Kerr's side in Tbilisi in 2003, is not so bullish.
"I think we will struggle against you tomorrow," he told The Herald.
"We will try to win the game but it's hard for us as we don't have enough top-level players any more. We have some good players but they're not in the first team at their clubs, or they are playing in leagues of a lower standard. That's our problem.
"I have some hope, we have a good man in Temuri Ketsbaia as our coach and he is trying hard to develop players. But I find it hard to see where the goals will come from. Levan Mchedlidze is a good player, he has done okay in Italy with Empoli so he has a chance of scoring for us.
"It's a tough game for us. Georgia are at home, and we always try to play good football at home. The problem for us now is that we have so many young players. They are talented and they have confidence but they do not have the experience of international football that players had in the teams I played in for Georgia.
"Of course, the Irish teams of the past were also stronger, when you had players like (Damien) Duff and (Stephen) Carr, (Shay) Given and (Steve) Finnan, all at top Premier (League) clubs. But you still have good players who get good coaching at clubs like Everton, and you have a good manager. Ireland will always have good players from the Premier League.
"The crowd can play a part, we have a passionate home support but the crowd can only do so much. The players have the work to do and it's difficult against a team like Ireland."
Past Georgian sides had familiar names like Kinkladze and Kakha Kaladze. But few of the current crop cause bells to ring, even for a Georgian.
"Even I don't know too much about a lot of the Georgian players as I don't live in Georgia any more. I am living in Moscow most of the time now," says Kinkladze. "The problem we have is that so many of our players play in the Georgian league and the level is not so high. We have a few players at clubs in Russia, Cyprus, Ukraine but we don't have players in the English or Scottish Premier Leagues, as we had when we played you in 2003.
"I remember the game in Tbilisi in 2003, it was a tough game for us. We did okay and you beat us 2-1. I would love to see Georgia get a win and I will be at the game. But I have my doubts."
The Georgians have been in camp all week, with the home-based players spending time working under coach Ketsbaia last week as well, the FA arranging some club games especially for the national team boss. They lack the experience of previous squads and have not been helped by the fact that young talents, like the much-lauded Levan Kenia, have not developed as rapidly as they'd have liked, but they still have some players of ability, with Greece-based keeper Girogi Loria experienced and defender Guram Kashia also one to note.
Loria (OFI, Greece); Griglava (Anzhi, Russia), Kashia (Vitesse Arnhem), Khubutia (Petakh Tikva, Israel), Lobjanidze (Ominia, Cyprus); Kobakhidze (Volyn, Ukraine), Jankava (Dnipro, Ukraine), Dzaria (Dynamo Tbilisi); Kaziashvili (Vitesse Arnhem), Okriashvili (Genk); Mchedlidze (Empoli).