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Keane at a crossroads

THESE are hard times for heroes and captains. Brian O'Driscoll, brought low by the Welsh and ready to step off the carousel; and now Robbie Keane, stopped in his tracks by a pain in his backside or thereabouts.

Time and travel have caught up with Keane and, for the first time in a decade, he is expected to be ruled out through injury while Ireland fight for a big prize – this one against Armenia in the Group B runners-up shoot-out at the Aviva tomorrow.

Keane’s failure to take part in a training session this morning is a clear indication that Shane Long - who has been knocking on the door now for two years and itching for a chance to convince Giovanni Trapattoni that he should be considered as an equally valid attacking option as his captain or Kevin Doyle - will get his chance.

If Keane feels a shiver of apprehension when he watches |Long sing the anthem and stretch his limbs before the game, he should do.

Football can be cruel beyond belief and Keane knows only too well that a career can change in the blink of an eye. No longer the fresh-faced, annoyingly confident and ruthless young lad who set tongues wagging across Europe when he emerged fully formed at Molineaux, his intention is still to be the centre of attention but perhaps he no longer has the equipment he needs to hold the spotlight.

The jury is out on that and will remain so for the next few months. |If a play-off is secured and Keane turns up fit to play in a month, Trapattoni will revert to his skipper and either Long or Doyle will withdraw to the bench again.

But that will not continue indefinitely. It's a long way from here to LA and at some point in the not too distant future – and maybe sooner than we think – either Trapattoni or

his successor will have to made a cold, clinical decision on Ireland's record goal-scorer.

Keane sold the move to America as a football decision made in good faith but the signs are there that he will struggle to cope with the demands imposed on his body by a travel and playing schedule which would severely task a much younger man.

The Premier League market chose to ignore his talents and didn't rate him highly enough to even approach the £60k-a-week salary he commanded at Tottenham.

We wondered about that in the final days of the August transfer window and when some pondered the possibility that Keane was past it and heading for America to play out his final days with the sun on his back and a big wedge of dollars in his pocket, it carried an echo of truth.

Early on in Friday evening's Pyrenean frolic, Keane made a short sprint towards the Andorran box and pulled up short, his hand massaging the back of his leg.

He played on and as the game ploughed on, so did he looking less and less like the supreme goal-poacher he has been for Ireland over the years.

Before the game, Trapattoni said that Keane had told him he was good to go when he clearly was not, but nobody should fault either player or manager for that.

Keane is always desperate to play and if he downplayed the twinge he felt in his abductor, the muscle which has been leaking blood according to |scan taken on Saturday, it was to be expected.

Players want to play and none more so than Keane who has spent so much of the past two years doing entirely the opposite for his club.

Ireland has been good for Keane in that time and no doubt he viewed Andorra as the kind of opposition which allowed for a bit of latitude.

He was right and Trapattoni and his players set off for the long trip down the mountain to Barcelona Airport with three points in the bag.

Maybe the damage to his glute was exacerbated by the tight confines of the coach or the even tighter dimensions of the standard seating arrangement on the Europost Air Contractors flight he boarded and sat becalmed on while baggage handlers wrestled with kit skips on the runway.

But his latest injury lets Trapattoni off the hook.

Keane has not played well since the new season started and there was a good case to be made to drop him for tomorrow's game and replace him with form striker Long.

With Doyle back to his flying best, Trapattoni would have had a big call to make had Keane come through the game with no further damage. This way, the decision is made for him.

When Doyle was struggling last month, Trapattoni was able nominate Long as his replacement and avoid the issue of Keane's form and fitness.

So the timing of his captain's torn abductor isn't bad for Trapattoni, who hitched his wagon to Keane in such a public and certain way when he took the Irish job and has never wavered from that commitment.

He has been rewarded handsomely by the man he named as Ireland captain with a steady supply of goals but not, it must be said, in recent games.

There's no doubt that Keane's personality and total self-belief allows him to view a muscle twinge as |nothing more than an irritation and for someone who has never had to worry too much about injuries, that is understandable. But at this level and with so much at stake, total belief doesn't count if the injury is bad enough.

Keane looked stiff and uneasy for a large part of the Andorra game and hindsight now gives a perfectly reasonable explanation for Trapattoni's decision to leave him on the pitch and withdraw Doyle.

He knew that Keane would struggle to be fit for the Armenia game so he did the logical thing; he protected Doyle, his best attacking option.