Kazakhstan v Ireland, 5pm
7 September ~ Giovanni Trapattoni needs a lot more than three points from today's World Cup Group C qualifier in Kazakhstan. He needs to convince Ireland's fans that he isn't a managerial back-issue, irrevocably betrothed to cobwebbed tactics and antiquated coaching. He also needs to show them that they can look forward to something a bit more interesting than another two years – or, if Ireland crash and burn, 13 months – of the same. More than anything else, he needs to give Irish people a reason to care about his team again. The reasoning behind this isn't entirely sociocultural or sporting.
The expensive Aviva Stadium in Dublin is a millstone around the FAI's neck: they can't shift more than a small handful of the venue's ten-year premium corporate tickets and the red ink is spreading.
John Delaney, the unpopular but impregnable chief executive, desperately needs some full houses during these qualifiers. A turkey of a performance today, followed by the seemingly inevitable defeat against Germany next month, would see a lot of empty green seats when Austria and Sweden – never mind the Faroes and Kazakhs – come to town.
The bloodbath of Euro 2012 gave devastating confirmation that this side's negativity is useless if the opposition happen to be good – Spain, Croatia, Italy and Russia have all pulled them apart in the past year – so the build-up to this campaign has been sombre. The mood got worse when Darron Gibson pulled out of the squad, saying that he was still hurting at being left on the bench for the entirety of Euro 2012.
Gibson, not always the most cheerful man, makes an unlikely martyr given how modest his performances for Ireland have been to date. He would almost certainly have started against Kazakhstan because Keith Andrews, Keith Fahey and the much-maligned Paul Green are all unavailable. Instead, James McCarthy of Wigan – who has his own history of irritable brushes with Trap – is in midfield, not before time in the minds of many.
The rest of the side looks conservative and safe: the limited Simon Cox on the left, Aiden McGeady again invited to flatter to deceive on the right, the vulnerable Stephen Ward in situ at left-back and Glenn Whelan picking up a 43rd cap.
Only one of the four senior citizens that Trap took to Poland will play tonight. The legendary Shay Given and Damien Duff quit international football last month, while Richard Dunne is out with a groin injury. Robbie Keane clings on, seemingly exempt from having to make way for the in-form Shane Long. Keane could score a goal or two today – Kazakhstan are poor – but that would be no more than a figleaf. His days of posing a goal threat to strong teams are long gone.
This group looks bleaker for Ireland the longer you gaze at it. Sweden are likely to have too much for them and Germany will be in unforgiving mood after blowing up in the semi-final of Euro 2012. At worst, it's imperative for Ireland to finish ahead of Austria, thus retaining some sort of decent seeding which would prevent them slipping down into the fourth pot.
Kazakhstan have lost most of their qualifiers since joining UEFA in 2004 but tend to avoid heavy beatings (the 5-1 at Wembley in 2008 being among the few exceptions) and are difficult to break down at home. Even under more expansive managers than Trapattoni, Ireland have never been great at opening up stubborn minnows. A long and life-sapping evening at the gleaming, many-girdered Astana Arena looms ahead. Jonathan O'Brien