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Keane sees a twist in tale

ONE OF HIS first acts as the new Ireland captain was to introduce a Celtic-style huddle among the players just before kick-off.

And Robbie Keane will go a step further and give the Irish team his own personal pep-talk, with a bit of a history lesson thrown in on top of the motivational speech, when the squad prepare to kick off in the tiny Estadi Comunal here in Andorra tonight.

The path of qualification in Group B has taken a few interesting diversions and side roads. Unlikely events occurred such as Russia losing at home to Slovakia, that Slovak side then losing at home to Armenia, and an Irish team in Russia somehow absorbing “90 minutes of sheer hell”, as John Barnes used to say in the old Lucozade ad, and emerging from Moscow with a clean sheet and a point.

Now the path ahead is simple – two wins for Ireland and they're in the play-offs, at least, with the possibility of automatic qualification if events in Zilina suit Irish needs. But Keane will still take his players aside, especially those who are relatively new to international football like Darren O'Dea and Stephen Ward, and leave them in no doubt as to what's at stake in Andorra.

“Everyone has to give a bit more. We all want to get to the play-offs or qualify straight away if Slovakia can do us a favour, so we all need to give that little bit extra, it's as simple as that,” Keane said at the pre-match press conference here in a sunny Andorra La Vella. “The players already know that, we spoke about it on the coach on the way here. On paper we're favourites and people are expecting us to win. Come tonight I'm sure myself and the other senior players will let the other players know – if they don't know already – how important this game is.

“We're coming into the two games desperate to get the six points and guarantee the play-offs, but I still think there's a twist somewhere along the line, and I hope it's not for us. Obviously Slovakia can do us a favour but we need to concentrate on our own job and getting the three points here, getting out of here and looking forward to Tuesday's game.

“This is what we played for, to be in this position at this stage of the campaign. A lot of people would have accepted this at the start of the campaign, but there could still be a twist to come, I think,” added Keane, aware that the surface here in Andorra could affect things.

“We have to take everything into consideration, the pitch and everything else. You're not going to be passing the ball around like

Barcelona, so we have to play to our strengths. For us it's about getting three points and getting out of here.”

So much is in Ireland's favour tonight: Giovanni Trapattoni has a relatively strong squad which is, in the main, injury-free and they're taking on a side that has one of the worst home records in international football (16 consecutive home defeats in qualifying games for Andorra).

Concerns

But slight concerns do pop up, like the relative inexperience and the sharpness of the back four. Between them, Darren O'Dea and Stephen Ward – who start in defence – have just five competitive games for Ireland on their CVs, while match fitness could be an issue for Sean St Ledger, so out of favour at Leicester City that he's failed to make the bench for their last three games.

Keane admits that having Richard Dunne (suspended) and Kevin Kilbane (injured) in the squad would make it stronger but the captain has faith in the incumbents to deliver.

“Of course, we'll miss Kevin and Richie, especially as Richard's performance in the last game in Russia was exceptional. They have been superb for us in this campaign.

“But the two lads who came in have done well whenever they've played and never let us down and they'll have a lot of confidence coming into the game. They've always been great when they play for Ireland,” said Keane.

“It's a blow not having Richard and Kevin but we have a big squad and I'm sure the lads will thrive on it.”

Match fitness was an obvious concern for the Ireland boss in the games at the start of the new season, and it must be remembered – and feared – that since the new term kicked off in August this Irish team has failed to score in 270 minute of football against Croatia, Slovakia and Russia.

“We all feel sharper now compared to the start of the season. A lot of games have gone since then and if you see the training, players look a lot sharper as the week's gone on and I think tonight you'll see a different Irish team with a lot of energy,” said Keane, benefiting from the receipt of first-team football at LA Galaxy since his move from Tottenham.

“I feel fine. When you get 90 minutes under your belt and the more games you get, the fitter and sharper you get. The more games I've got the fitter I have felt, so I am in a good position at the moment.

“It's important that players are playing for their clubs. It makes you sharper and gives you confidence, so that will only help the team.

“A lot of players are playing for their clubs at the moment. We have done okay, we have only lost one game.”

Sharper

But avoiding defeat and just keeping clean sheets – with no goals at the other end – is no longer enough as a win is a must, no matter when the goal comes.

“We'd love to get a goal in the first few minutes but we have to be careful and make sure we don't get caught on the counter attack as well,” said Keane, aware that his old club, Spurs, went behind before going on to win at home to Shamrock Rovers.

“White Hart Lane with Shamrock Rovers was a prime example of that. It's very important that we keep focused and defend as a team. If we score in the first or in the 80th minute it doesn't matter, as long as we come out with a win.”