11 October ~ Giovanni Trapattoni's time in charge of the Republic of Ireland to date has been characterised by a mixture of dire football and decent results. His single-mindedness has given the team a clear identity, a coherent style and a discipline rarely seen in Irish sides. However, his reign has also seen the team accused of playing negative football, of not seizing opportunities and of valuing work ethic at the expense of invention. In many ways, tonight's opponents Armenia could be the perfect side to expose the weaknesses in Trappatoni's gameplan.
Having beaten Andorra 3-0, fellow play-off chasers Slovakia 4-0 and John Toshack's Macedonia 4-1, Armenia come to play in Dublin in red-hot form. Even local reports of the squad being offered a €3 million (£2.6m) qualification bonus as an incentive can't explain the upturn in their performances since the start of the campaign, when a Keith Fahey goal gave Ireland a win in Yerevan. Yura Movsisyan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is listed as doubtful for tonight's game, have shot to prominence as the key figures in a fast, adventurous and precise team, one more than capable of finding the same holes in the Republic's rigid defensive lines that Russia had such fun with.
What's more is that Ireland will have to face them without Robbie Keane, who has been replaced by West Brom striker Simon Cox due to injury. Shane Long, arguably Ireland's form striker over the past year, was the more obvious replacement for the captain and his presence brings a greater dynamism and urgency to the side. However, the suggestion is that Trapattoni believes that Cox fits the system better than Long – regardless of a player's personal attributes, the system is king. Left-back Stephen Ward will also miss the game after picking up a yellow card for diving while his team were two goals up against Andorra.
For the Republic and their manager, this is the biggest game since the World Cup play-off match in Paris in 2009. The squad's greatest achievement and failure took place on that night as they succeeded in setting a high tempo and aggressively attacking a failing French side. That performance proved no precursor to the current campaign, however, as Ireland seem unable to cope with any fast interplay that the Russian or Slovakians conjured up, preferring instead to fall back behind the ball in rigid formation and wait for whatever breaks came their way.
Too often, the Irish team have been left looking to Richard Dunne and Shay Given for yet another evening of heroic blocks and general team-carrying. For players such as Dunne, Given, Keane and Damien Duff, time is running out and for some this could represent the last chance of playing at a major tournament. A draw would see Ireland progress and the temptation for such a conservative manager must be to aim for one. It would be a dangerous game to play. These are the defining weeks of the Trapattoni era – those that decide whether his reign will be remembered as the period that steadied the ship and restored organisation and pride after the Staunton debacle, or as a late explosion of success in several great international careers. Aidan Bonner