Ok, it's that time again. We have another two games under our national belt so it's appropriate that we check if the results live up to our expectations, and also if September's article was some insightful football analysis, or just the ramblings of another alcohol-fuelled imbecile.
The Group 4 table makes relatively pleasant reading. Ireland is looking down its nose at the former World and European champions, and also at the team who denied us a place in the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea. A bit of an ego-booster then.
While we might argue about some of the specifics, and debate the merits of some of the individuals, there can be little complaint about the overall result. We won the two games we were expected to win, we got a draw in Switzerland (nothing to gloat about I admit) and we also drew in France (feel free to gloat now). We've already looked at the first two games, so we begin this month's analysis with a look at how the Irish performed in Paris.
Firstly some context. Through a variety of suspensions, retirements and injuries, les Bleus were without several key players (Viera, Zidane, Lizarazu, Desailly for starters). Ireland had no such troubles. On the other hand, France has been ranked second in the world since May 2003, while over a similar period Ireland has wobbled in the mid-teens. France already dropped points at home to Israel, but the Irish were shaky against Switzerland. A tough one to call, but most neutrals would probably have gone for France.
Brian Kerr began with a largely predictable Irish team. Given started in goals, O'Shea and Carr were the full backs, and O'Brien and Cunningham where the centre-halves. On the left wing was Damien Duff, and on the right Kerr deployed Steve Finnan. This was the first remotely contentious choice, as the great white hope Andy Reid might have expected to start here. Kerr was possibly thinking of countering the French attack on that wing, lead by Robert Pires. As a converted winger, Thierry Henry also has a fondness for the left wing, so an Irish right-winger with defensive experience was an excellent decision. The midfield pairing of Keane and Kilbane was less surprising. If Keane is fit, he will play, and few outside of Graham Kavanagh's fan club will have been surprised. Kevin Kilbane is one of only three players to have started every Brian Kerr game (Carr & Given are the other two) so while some might have done it differently, nobody was shocked. Up front, the other Keane and Clinton Morrison were selected as is Kerr's custom, despite the fact that Keane is showing a remarkably poor run of form and Morrison is fourth choice striker for his club.
Let's get the humble pie out of the way. Clinton Morrison only survived 40 minutes before he succumbed to injury, but he was excellent. Confounding his (many) critics, he won a ridiculous amount of possession, held the ball up particularly well, drew fouls, made runs, and generally did everything short of score. And the reason he didn't score is because he had no chances, not because he fluffed a few sitters. If he played this well regularly there would be few complaints.
The second helping of humble pie will be delivered by Kevin Kilbane. I wrote in September that Kilbane was not a central midfielder. He has still not done enough to convince that this is his best position, but in the ninety minutes against France he was outstanding, and was the deserving winner of the Man of the Match award. Kilbane was effective because he focussed on what he can do well, and did not try to be something he's not (are you reading this John O'Shea?). Kilbane covered more blades of grass than the groundsman. He used his height to good effect, making clearing headers and winning vital possession in midfield. His supporting runs were tireless, and he regularly popped up on the left wing. What he did not do, is attempt to dribble past players and play fancy outside-of-the-boot 50-yard cross field passes. Kilbane cannot do that, and he knows it. He also knows that he is strong and good in the air, and his fitness is a match for anyone's.