Steve Staunton secured his second job in management this week. Once in charge of the Republic of Ireland, he is now at the helm at Darlington. For the Irish, that may say everything. Darlington are 92nd and last in the Football League, without a win in their first 11 games of the season. Ireland, in contrast, are being guided by a former manager of AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Benfica.
Giovanni Trapattoni is three decades Staunton's senior, but the differences extend far beyond that. Under the Italian, the Republic have genuine hope of playing in the World Cup. Under their most capped player, they lost 5-2 in Cyprus. Tomorrow brings a reunion for Trapattoni as Ireland host Italy. The Italian managed his homeland for two years and took a point off his compatriots in Bari in April, courtesy of Robbie Keane's 89th-minute equaliser.
A repeat at Croke Park tonight would guarantee the defending champions' presence at the World Cup next summer and all but ensure the Irish finish in second place, giving them a play-off for a place in South Africa. A meeting with Cyprus on Wednesday represents the Italians' insurance policy; even with an Irish win, Marcello Lippi's side would remain the favourites to top the group. Second, however, carries its perils for the Irish. Fifa's recently declared intention to seed sides in the play-offs means that they are likely to be paired with one of Europe's traditional powers; that could entail a clash with France, Germany, Russia or Portugal.
In an unseeded draw, less daunting opponents could have included Latvia, Slovenia, Bosnia or Greece. Trapattoni has labelled it "the death of football" and his often mild-mannered goalkeeper Shay Given has branded it "disgusting" and "crazy". Yet if such a situation has an advantage, it can be found in Ireland's history. Perhaps their two greatest results came when the odds were stacked against them. The victories over England in the 1988 European Championship and against Italy in the 1994 World Cup, both clinched by Ray Houghton goals.
Excellence as underdogs will be required again, tomorrow and, in all probability, in the play-offs next month. Yet it is pertinent that Trapattoni has made Ireland so hard to beat that they are undefeated in a qualifying group that also includes Bulgaria. His counterpart is well qualified to assess what his predecessor has brought to the Irish. Lippi, like Trapattoni, has managed Juventus, Inter and the Azzurri. A coach must have, he explained, the "ability to plan, the ability to grow your self-esteem and make them play as a team".
Lippi has similar strengths. Both managers continue to omit a flair player - Antonio Cassano for the Italians, Andy Reid for the Irish - as they focus on the team. Neither, arguably, is overly adventurous. A tight, tactical game beckons, with each manager an advocate of midfield workhorses. One such player is Mauro Camoranesi, born in Argentina but first selected for his adopted nation by Trapattoni. Camoranesi, 33, who could be one of six Juventus players in Lippi's side, will be winning his 50th cap. Landmarks beckon later in the week for three others: the goalkeepers Gianluigi Buffon and Given, plus the Irish utility man Kevin Kilbane, should all reach a century on Wednesday.
Even without the injured Damien Duff, whose absence has made Reid still more of a cause celebre, Ireland are scarcely short of experience. Indeed Keane, with 40 goals for his country, may have more international strikes than the entire Italian team. On the flanks, Trapattoni will decide between Liam Lawrence and Stephen Hunt, while Richard Dunne is expected to be fit to take his place in defence after an ankle problem.
Italy, meanwhile, are without their suspended captain Fabio Cannavaro while the tireless winger Claudio Marchisio is a doubt. Lippi has switched from 4-3-3 to a midfield diamond but, while Italy have rarely been fluent, their aim is almost accomplished. The ends, to quote an Italian thinker of an earlier era, have justified his means. That has been a principle of Italian football throughout Trapattoni's five decades in the game. While Ireland host Montenegro on Wednesday, his qualification campaign is unlikely to end before a play-off game. And while he faces Italy tomorrow, Staunton takes on Dagenham & Redbridge.