By Aidan Fitzmaurice
With no points from two games, and testing UEFA EURO 2004™ away qualifiers in Georgia and Albania first up, it is hard to imagine a tougher baptism for Brian Kerr as manager of the Republic of Ireland. "We need to come back with points," he said. "
We really need two wins and I will do my best, although this is a situation I inherited."
The odds are stacked against Kerr: defeats to Russia and Switzerland represent Ireland's worst start to a group in 40 years. Add to that the fact that six members of the FIFA World Cup finals squad are missing, plus the expected absence of star striker Robbie Keane because of a family bereavement, and it begins to look like mission impossible.
Kerr lost the services of Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer, Clinton Morrison, Ian Harte, Steven Reid and Steve Finnan. And more injuries meant that he was unable to call in Mark Kennedy, Richie Partridge, Glen Crowe and Richard Sadlier.
Keane's father died on Monday and the Tottenham Hotspur FC striker stayed behind in Dublin with his family for the funeral when the squad left for Tbilisi on Thursday morning. Keane, scorer of 14 goals in 40 appearances for the Republic, is not expected to join the squad for the Georgia match on Saturday, although he may fly out to play in Wednesday's game in Albania.
But the Irish boss has confidence that his younger players can shoulder the responsibility and drive Ireland towards qualification for their first UEFA European Championship finals appearance since 1988. Much of that hope rests on Manchester United FC defender John O'Shea.
The 22-year-old, who has played more first-team games this season than any other player at Old Trafford, is ready to win his fourth cap, filling in at left back for Ian Harte, who withdrew from the squad for family reasons. Celtic FC's youngster Colin Healy is battling with squad newcomer Alan Quinn to play on the right side of midfield.
"I've seen John play for Manchester United in a few positions and at times
I have been in awe of him," said veteran defender Gary Breen. "I can see what a talent he is, at such a young age. He played against my West Ham [United FC] team for United earlier this season at left-back but he was more like a winger. He was fantastic, playing with a lot of confidence and that's great to see in a young player."
Kerr will not name his team until just before kick off as he waits for a final decision on Keane's participation, and he must decide where to play Damien Duff, who plays on the left wing for club Blackburn Rovers FC but may be pressed into action for Ireland as a striker.
Georgia also have their injury concerns, most notably to AC Milan left-back Kakha Kaladze, whose late withdrawal prompted a call-up for Anorthosis Famagusta FC midfield player Temuri Ketsbaia. Meanwhile, Dabisd Kvirkvelia is set to make his debut for Georgia after scoring for FC Dinamo Tbilisi at the weekend.
Russia will climb above Switzerland at the top of Group 10 if they can beat Albania in Skoder the same day. "We are thinking only of victory in this game, but I am expecting a tough match," said coach Valeri Gazzaev. "A lot of the Albanians play for good European clubs, and after they lost in Volgograd they will be extra keen to beat us. And they are playing in Skoder for the first time, which will be a boost."
Albania will also be in their first competitive match under coach Hans-Pieter Briegel, an unkown qualinty that is further concern for Russia. "
There are no weak teams in Europe anymore - and Albania have a new coach who will want to win on his debut," said Russia captain Alexei Smertin. "It will not be a cakewalk."
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