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WORLD CUP QUALIFYING - UEFA

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FT

Ireland's fortunes fading

Gareth Maher
Giovanni Trapattoni is under pressure to revitalise Ireland's fading fortunes

There was a moment earlier this week when Ciaran Clark paused before revealing that the Republic of Ireland didn't have a plan to deal with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It felt strange for them not to have that locked down so close to a crucial World Cup qualifier against Sweden.

Perhaps the Aston Villa defender was simply not leaking inside information to the media, or, more likely, Giovanni Trapattoni's now infamous silence in the dressing-room when everyone is awaiting their instructions has once again struck. Uh, oh, it looks like the players must handle it themselves.

Sometimes managers can overload players with too many things to remember, but Trapattoni expects this Ireland team to stick to the principles that he put in place when he took charge back in 2008. Those include keeping a tight shape (more often than not in a 4-4-2 formation), using wingers as the creative outlets, having both central midfielders sit deep and try to score goals from set-pieces.

Initially, those tactics worked a treat for Ireland - anything organised was bound to be better than the shambles it became under Steve Staunton's watch - but they are now out-dated. That was shown up at last summer's Euro 2012 finals, where Ireland were humiliated by Croatia, Spain and Italy. Yet, still, Trapattoni persists with his old ways.

Having turned 74 on St Patrick's Day, it feels as though the Italian is stuck in a black-and-white era and afraid of embracing the digital age, where football tactics allow players to roam, midfielders to get forward, defenders to set the tempo with their passing and players to shoot on goal from distance. And it is his reluctance to change that could cost Ireland a place at the 2014 World Cup.

From Ireland's perspective, Friday night's game in Stockholm against Group C rivals Sweden is massive. It is one they cannot afford to lose and then must claim the three points against Austria in Dublin four days later. This is crunch time for Trapattoni and his team has yet to receive any specific instructions on how to achieve their target.

"It is important not to lose in Sweden and then to beat Austria," stated Trapattoni, who has spent the week dealing with a backlash over dropping striker Kevin Doyle by text message.

"I am confident when I see the players training with energy and freshness. I see their technical work and their movement. It convinces me that they are happy."

The Doyle saga is the latest incident in a slew of cases against Trapattoni for mistreating his players and it comes on the back of last month's farce when he accused Reading's Stephen Kelly of threatening to only report for duty if he was guaranteed a starting spot.

Kelly is back in the squad now, however, Doyle and Wolves team-mate Stephen Ward were cruelly cut despite previously being regulars. The treatment of players, which is now close to 20 individuals who have serious gripes with the Ireland manager, is just one charge on his ever-extending rap sheet that the supporters are taking note of.

Should Ireland lose to Sweden, which is a possibility considering Ibrahimovic's form at PSG, the confidence in Erik Harmen's squad, and home advantage, then the pressure will really crank up on the FAI to find a replacement for Trapattoni - something they almost did after the 6-1 hammering at home to Germany last October.

However, the former Juventus manager has a contract that runs until after the 2014 World Cup and it is part-funded by wealthy businessman Denis O'Brien. So it would have to be a titanic-style crash in Stockholm for O'Brien to consider digging into his pockets to find enough money for a severance package for Trapattoni.

It may not come to that though. Ireland could draw, or even beat, Sweden on Friday and ignite their charge for that runners-up spot in Group C behind Germany. But, when centre-back Clark starts talking about 'sticking together' and hoping to get a result, one has every right to be concerned.

"They're a top-class side with world-class players, including Ibrahimovic, but it's just one of those games. We'll deal with him in any way we'll deal with any other game," said Clark.

"We'll stick together like we always are and it's just one of those games you will work hard as a team and hopefully we will get the result on the night."

There are still a lot of games to be played in this qualifying campaign, but for Trapattoni none hold as much importance as Friday's against Sweden. If he tastes defeat, it could be the beginning of the end of his troublesome reign with Ireland.

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