Republic of Ireland v South Africa, International Friendly, September 9, 2009
Irish eyes were smiling after Robbie Keane claimed his 40th international goal seven minutes from time in Nicosia to lead the Republic to a 2-1 victory over Cyprus. Giovanni Trapattoni’s side are now odds on favourites to claim the second place in the group and battle in the playoffs, while heartened optimists will still be dreaming that Ireland can beat Italy in their final match to magically top the group.
A 2009 remake of Ray Houghton’s USA ’94 moment of brilliance though looks beyond the capabilities of Ireland’s current crop. Even though Cyprus caused Ireland little bother, the Gaelic Greens were still unable to confidently and comfortably win at a canter. Rather, Ireland’s triumph was a result of a mixture of their opponent’s errors, a heavy dose of good old-fashioned Irish luck and Robbie Keane’s habit of eventually putting a chance a way. If Ireland reach South Africa they will have stumbled across the finishing line rather than bursting through the ribbon with gusto.
On paper Ireland look at their most solid in defence. Blessed with Shay Given between the sticks, Ireland’s rearguard is saturated with experience with John O’Shea, Richard Dunne and Kevin Kilbane all regular starters. Propping up the defence, Preston centre-half Sean St. Ledger is the new kid on the block. (Ireland are 10/11 to keep a clean sheet.)
It is in midfield where Ireland’s problems start to take hold. The talisman of the side should be Manchester City’s brilliant talent Stephen Ireland, yet the slaphead playmaker continues to refuse to rejoin the international set-up, much to his nation’s loss.
In his wake, United’s Darron Gibson, Blackburn’s Keith Andrews and Stoke’s Glenn Whelan have all failed to assert themselves in the centre of the Irish midfield, while on the wings its a similar story as Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt all seem to lack that extra gear to lead their country when it matters most. With a midfield full of lightweights, the omission of Andy Reid and Lee Carsley continues to puzzle.
Then we arrive to the strikers.
Despite missing far more than he scores Robbie Keane remains virtually undroppable, but with the arrival of South Africa for a friendly on Wednesday night, Trapattoni may well focus on Caleb Folan and Kevin Doyle to see which striker deserves to play alongside the Spurs hitman in the attack.
While the rest of the world sweats bullets in their attempts to reach the World Cup, hosts South Africa appear to be hopelessly meandering to the games stringing up a series of defeats on their way. In Bafana Bafana’s last warm-up match on Saturday in Germany the Africans fell 2-nil to the European powerhouse.
To fans of the Premier League, Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena remain the most well-known of the South Africans squad. Yet Ireland should be aware of some of Bafana’s less well-known stars, with Bernard Parker and Katlego Mphela sharp and lively in attack while at the back Siboniso Gaxa is an accomplished full-back while keeper Rowen Fernandez will always prove hard to beat.
South Africa have lost their last five consecutive matches in all competitions, although that has included defeats to the likes of Spain, Brazil and most recently the Germans. Ireland are undoubtedly not on that level, but with the wind in their sails after their win in Cyprus the Irish look ready to continue their winning streak at Croke Park.
101predicts: Republic of Ireland 2 – South Africa 1 (7/1)
Full match odds here.