Monday 22 January 2018

'This is a game we can't lose'

Given's gunning for victory to effectively bring curtain down on Russia in Group B

IT was our Battle of the Boyne. The time when green triumphed over the men of orange.

It was also the last time that Ireland won a qualifying game against what could be called a major nation in European football, that memorable 1-0 defeat of Holland in the old Lansdowne Road back in 2001.

And as a Dutchman -- Dick Advocaat -- prepares to lead Russia into battle here in Dublin on Friday night, Shay Given has invoked the spirit of '01 and called on his team-mates to use Friday's game as a stepping stone towards the finals of Euro 2012.


Oh, and also to erase bad memories of past disasters against Russia.

"This game on Friday, it's a bit like the game against Holland under Mick back in 2001," Given told the Herald. "I know that was a bit later in the group and this is only our third qualifier in this campaign, but it probably has the same importance."

"If we can beat Russia it puts them further out of reach, and when we beat Holland nine years ago it killed off their hopes of qualifying, so it's a massive match. There are a lot of games left and this game won't see Russia out of contention, but it would certainly give us, and Slovakia, some breathing space if we can beat Russia.

"It would take the wind out of their sails if we can beat them. It would put some daylight between us and Russia if we can get the three points. That's our aim, to get the win, but above all we cannot lose. They are a good enough team to go anywhere in the world and win so we have to be careful at the same time. We'd like to win of course but we can't lose.

"If we can win against one of the big nations in the group it will give us more belief and confidence for the rest of the campaign," says Given, one of four survivors in this squad (along with Richard Dunne, Kevin Kilbane and Robbie Keane) from the side which beat Holland 1-0 almost a decade ago.

Since then, Ireland have played competitive games home and away against (deep breath) Russia, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Israel, Germany and the Czech Republic without a single victory -- 20 games home and away against the big boys and not a win to be seen.

So the next week is a big test of just how far Ireland have come under Giovanni Trapattoni. Will the positives from Paris, and the boost to confidence that sprang from opening wins against Armenia and Andorra see the Irish side through? Or will we again see the Irish side that plays out dull draws against the Russians (2003), the Germans (2007) and the Swiss (2004, 2005)?

"We've had a positive start but that's all it is, a good start. And this month is the big question mark for us in the group, a real test of how good we are and we'll know that by next Tuesday night when the two games are behind us," Given admits.

"We did well against Armenia and Andorra but this is a different level now, Russia and Slovakia. We had a good start in the last two games but this double header will give a good sign of where we are now as a team and whether we can qualify, they are two massive games but we're focused on Russia first."

Russia is where it all began for Given, handed his debut against them in 1996, and it was also the beginning of the end for Mick McCarthy, in 2002. "I have a bad memory of the game in Moscow in 2002, we lost 4-2 out there and that was a bad night," Given recalls.

"My debut was against Russia in 1996 so that's always a special game for me, I know we lost the match but it was amazing for me to make my debut.

"I remember it quite well, I had a lot of family and friends at the game. We lost 2-0, which wasn't ideal, but I got to play for my country which, growing up in Donegal, I never thought I would so that was pretty special. It wasn't great just after the game and Roy Keane was sent off -- but a few weeks later I started to think 'I have played for Ireland now'."

Of course, times change, and we know a lot more about Russian footballers now. The Russian side which won 2-0 in Dublin on Roy Keane's debut as captain drew most of the players from the leagues of Russia or Spain, but the Russian side of 2010 has a strong presence from the English Premier League, as well as Germany-based striker Pavel Pogrebnyak.

"Russia have some top quality players, we know that from the Premier League, and we will all have to be on top of our game to get a result. We will assess the Russian squad this week, look at their strengths and weaknesses, and we will be well prepared for Friday," says Given.

"It's a help in that we know how good they are. When we would have played Russia in years gone by, you would not have known their players as well but with so many players in the Premier League we know what they are about. They have fantastic players who can be world-beaters on their day, so we have to be really focused when we don't have the ball and defend as a unit.

"Pavlychenko and Pogrebnyak are big, physical guys, but we have Richard Dunne at the back, who is big and strong as well. Sean St Ledger has been fantastic since he came into the squad and they will relish the challenge. They have worked very well together as a unit.


"I'd hope for a quiet night. I like to have a quiet night every time I play because that means all the action is up the other end and their keeper is the busy one. I'm sure there are spells in the game where they will have possession and have chances, and we need everyone working hard to keep them out," added Given, who wants the Irish supporters to play a role on Friday .

"The fans have a big part to play. I think it's good that it's a night game and we need the crowd to create a good atmosphere on the night," says the Irish keeper. "I know a lot of that comes as a response to what happens on the pitch but if we can have the place like a cauldron when we come out to start the game it will be a big help to everyone.

"Hopefully people can leave work early on Friday and get a few pints into them before the game starts, get the courage up and get the atmosphere going. In the big games, we need the crowd to create a big atmosphere for us, and Friday is one of the biggest games in the group."

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