First off, a word of warning if you’re crossing the big pond and flying into Nicosia for Saturday’s crucial World Cup showdown between Ireland and Cyprus -– Barney is in town.
Yes folks, the world’s favorite dinosaur and his cohorts BJ and Baby Bop are live at the To Skali Amphitheatre in the Cypriot capital all this weekend.
They’re even learning Greek for the purpose of their tour of all the major towns on the southern half of Cyprus, but I’m sure they’ll still sing their “I Love You, You Love Me” anthem in English.
Having sat through a Barney show in Clontarf Castle many years ago, I can’t say I’d recommend the pleasure to anyone looking for something to do the night before the game.
But the actor who fills the Baby Bop suit can rest easy –- he won’t be the only grown man walking around Nicosia in a silly green outfit this weekend.
Even though the recession has hit Trap’s Army, there is still talk of almost 3,000 green clad Ireland fans hitting the Mediterranean for the latest edition of the “Biggest Game Ireland Have Played Under Giovanni Trapattoni.”
I know we said that before the visit to Italy in March and again when we went to Sofia and drew with Bulgaria in June, but this game really is massive and for a number of reasons.
For a start, Ireland can make their draw with the Bulgarians really count for something by winning on Saturday night, a result that would all but rule the Bulgars out of the qualifying picture.
The three points on offer in Nicosia’s GSP Stadium would also effectively guarantee Trap’s team the second spot in the Group Eight table and a place in the November playoffs.
Trap himself believes that Italy will slip up between now and their visit to Dublin in October, and that victory over Cyprus could be the result to push Ireland closer to winning the group and securing automatic qualification for South Africa next summer.
All of the above is relevant –- bar the bit about Barney of course.
But really one thing matters more than anything when the Irish land in Larnaca Airport on Thursday and open the door to some 32 degrees of heat -– revenge!
Anybody who suffered through the 5-2 defeat the last time Ireland played on this sun-kissed Mediterranean Island will know exactly what I am talking about.
The players and the manager have been keen to talk down the significance of that humiliation in October of 2006 but trust me, one of the worst results in the history of Irish football has a major relevance to this fixture.
Cyprus regard that win as one of their finest moments ever in international sport, and so they should. The Ireland players who played that night regard it as the low point of their international careers, as well they should.
Already this week the likes of Kevin Kilbane, who played in that game, and Shay Given, who didn’t, have tried to dismiss the theory that revenge will be a factor come Saturday night, but it has to be.
The 5-2 reversal last time out was the beginning of the end for Steve Staunton’s reign as manager, and the beginning of the end for the team’s hopes of qualification for Euro 2008. Paddy Kenny, Andy O’Brien and Clinton Morrison haven’t kicked a ball for Ireland since that fateful night, so the players know exactly what’s at stake this weekend.
Defeat this Saturday wouldn’t spell the end of our World Cup hopes, but it wouldn’t do them any favors either.
An Ireland win can send a huge message of intent in the direction of South Africa with the revenge factor a little extra sweetener for Robbie Keane, et al.
All of which makes this the biggest game of the Trapattoni era -– again!
St. Ledger doubtful for Cyprus
SEAN St. Ledger is a major injury doubt for Ireland’s crucial World Cup qualifier in Cyprus on Saturday after he picked up a knee injury on club duty with Preston last weekend.
Irish boss Giovanni Trapattoni is awaiting a full assessment of St. Ledger’s fitness before he makes a final decision on the player’s chances of partnering new Aston Villa signing Richard Dunne in Nicosia.
Trapattoni has reported no other injury problems ahead of Thursday's departure for the Mediterranean island.
Meanwhile, Shay Given has urged his Irish teammates not to let history repeat itself in Nicosia on Saturday night as Ireland look for revenge against Cyprus.
Given was a frustrated television spectator back home on Tyneside when Steve Staunton’s Ireland were humiliated in a 5-2 defeat to the Cypriots three years ago next month.
The then Newcastle United ‘keeper missed that game through injury and wanted to hide his head in shame as he watched the drama unfold on a big screen at his local Irish club.
But Given is confident that lightning will not strike twice this weekend when an Irish win will keep the pressure on Group Eight leaders Italy and all but guarantee a place in the playoffs.
“It is a massive fixture with a huge reward at the end of it if we can win it and set ourselves up for Italy and Montenegro next month with the World Cup finals as the reward for winning all three games,” said Given.
“Cyprus are first up and they will be hard to beat as Italy know when Buffon was their man of the match over there and they won the game in the last minute but I don’t think Cyprus are our bogey team.
“They are a decent side as we know but we just have to be better than them on the night and set ourselves up for those final two fixtures in Croke Park.
“They are a good team but we were very poor on the night. A lot of people performed below par and it was a bad night to be involved with the Irish team.
“It left a scar but that won’t help us this game nor should it simply because we know what is at stake now as regards this fixture in its own right.”
Nicosia veteran Kevin Kilbane has also warned his Irish teammates not to underestimate Cyprus as he looks to banish the memories of that fateful night.
“If you want to find a massive stick to beat yourself with as an Irish footballer, then Cyprus it is,” a forthright Kilbane told Star Sunday.
“If we are honest about it then there isn’t an Irish player, official or supporter who was there that night who wasn’t scarred by that Cyprus result in 2006.
“It hurt a lot that night and everyone felt it so much, players more than anyone. It hurt at the time and it still hurts. Whenever we are together as players and talk about it that pain comes rushing back.”
Happy to talk about his Nicosia nightmare before the return event, Kilbane insists the talking will stop in the build-up to the game.
Trapattoni has already placed his team on a war footing ahead of the latest battle of wits against the “provocative” Cypriots, and Kilbane is well aware of what’s at stake in the foothills of the Mediterranean capital.
“The last visit there is going to be brought up so many times this coming week and that is only natural, but as players we cannot afford to get caught up in it,” warned the experienced Hull midfielder now Ireland’s first choice left-back.
Trapattoni, meanwhile, will eye top place in the Group Eight table and automatic qualification when he steps onto the pitch at the GSP Stadium before the game.
The Ireland boss is convinced that his native Italy will slip up against Georgia on Saturday or Bulgaria next Wednesday before their October visit to Dublin.
The Italians currently top the Group Eight table, but three wins from the remaining fixtures he regards as “three cup finals” will have Trapattoni laughing at his own country’s expense.
Trap has repeatedly warned his Irish players to beware of provocation and intimidation from a Cypriot side who felt they deserved a draw in Dublin 11 months ago.
But he also knows there is a major reward in store for his team if they can take three points from Nicosia and set themselves up for an October epic against Italy.
“We have to play our own game and forget about everyone else. If we win in Cyprus –- then the possibility is there for us to overtake Italy when we come face to face in Croke Park,” said Trapattoni.
“Plus Italy also have to play Bulgaria again and they have no guarantee of winning that so I am not giving up on anything.”
CELTIC’S Irish winger Aiden McGeady is the latest player involved in a diving row after he was sent off at Hibs on Sunday, but manager Tony Mowbray has claimed his player is no cheat.
McGeady was in the wars just days after Arsenal striker Eduardo conned a penalty against Celtic in the Champions League and now faced disciplinary action from UEFA.
McGeady was handed a second yellow card for diving and then a red when he went down under a challenge from defender Paul Hanlon as a goal from Georgios Samaras secured a 1-0 win at Easter Road.
Celtic boss Mowbray was unhappy with the McGeady decision. “If the Eduardo situation had not been blown up so big nationally, 99 times out of 100, maybe even 100 out of 100, it would never have been a yellow card,” he said.
“I think the referee has been influenced by the diving situation. I don’t need to look at it again, it happened right in front of me.
“It was unfortunate for Aiden. It was a poor decision and we are in all in disbelief. You have to put it into the context of the boy traveling 50 yards before the incident. He went to ground because he was knackered.
“Is it a dive? Never in a million years. A dive is when you try to influence the referee, you throw your arms up and so on.”
Hanlon also defended McGeady but insisted he made no contact with the Hoops player.
Celtic crashed out of the Champions League when they went down to Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last week –- and Gunners striker Eduardo went down like a lead balloon to earn a controversial penalty.
UEFA are taking disciplinary action against Eduardo after he won a first half penalty after a collision with Celtic ‘keeper Artur Boruc.
TV replays clearly showed Boruc made no contact at all with the Croatian striker, but Mowbray refused to get involved in the controversy after his side’s Euro exit.
The Celtic boss said, “I haven’t given it a second thought. I have seen the incident again but it doesn’t matter, we are out of the Champions League.”
The Europa League is the consolation prize for Celtic when they will face Hamburg, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Rapid Vienna in the group stages.
“When I said after the game against Arsenal that none of the teams in the Europa League would be as strong as them, that was a fair comment,” said Mowbray.
“We go into it hoping we can do well but we are very respectful of the teams that are in there.”
Celtic’s Irish defender Darren O’Dea has signed a new three-year contract with the Glasgow club but has also moved to Reading on loan until January.
South Korea international Ki Sung-yong has reportedly agreed a deal to join Celtic in the January transfer window while the club’s Italian midfielder Massimo Donati has returned home and signed for Bari on a four year deal.
Premier League Wigan have been linked with a loan deal for Scott McDonald.
Ireland's new kick
STEPHEN Ireland has finally given Giovanni Trapattoni and the nation’s World Cup dream the chop -– in favor of kick boxing!
Ireland has confirmed that he would rather practice martial arts than play for his country this weekend.
Instead of traveling to Cyprus on World Cup duty, Ireland has drawn up a grueling eight day fitness schedule at his kick boxing club.
The Manchester City midfielder was watched by Trapattoni against Wolves last week, but their stand-off will continue.
And both Trapattoni and the Irish fans can forget about an Ireland return ahead of next month’s concluding qualifiers against Italy and Montenegro.
“There is no change to the international situation,” said Ireland. “As far as I am concerned retiring was probably the best decision I ever made.
“I’m not thinking about going back to the squad. In the international break I will train every day. I have already planned eight days of working flat out.
“Some players might look for a rest in international week but I like working harder. I want to give myself the best chance in football and would like to be a big player like Roy Keane.”
WORLD Cup defender Richard Dunne is on the verge of a big money move from Manchester City to Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa.
Dunne became surplus to requirement at City after manager Mark Hughes finally landed Everton centre-back Joleon Lescott.
Villa and Bulgaria captain Stiliyan Petrov has welcomed Dunne’s imminent arrival in Birmingham.
“The deal for Dunne will be great news for Villa,” said Petrov. “Richard’s an international player, he’s been in the Premier League for so many years and is one of the game’s big players.
“It’s going to be a big signing for Villa. It will give us a strong defender at the back and, of course, he’s definitely a true leader.
“He’s the captain of Ireland, he’s been the captain of Manchester City, so you love to see players like that coming to this club.”