Unseeded Ireland could sprout surprise

 
 

After gaining arguably the second most preferential team in the World Cup playoff draw, Richard Chambers examines Ireland’s chances

So we find that the Republic of Ireland, after over thirteen months of undefeated participation in the qualifying group stage and grim acceptance of FIFA’s controversial decision to seed the playoffs, needing to beat France to attain a place in next summer’s World Cup. Ireland must now defeat the former World and European champions over the course of two legs in November.

The atmosphere in the Stade de France could be much more welcoming for the Irish visitors than on their previous visit in 2004
The atmosphere in the Stade de France could be much more welcoming for the Irish visitors than on their previous visit in 2004

In a draw, held at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, the Republic was plucked from the pot of unseeded teams first by Everton’s Steven Pienaar, giving us an opening fixture in Dublin on 14th November followed by an arduous away fixture four days later. A daunting task awaits the Republic, but qualification is by no means an impossibility.

Throughout his tenure Giovanni Trapattoni has instilled a gritty confidence and self-belief into a beleaguered squad. In the aftermath of the disappointing Staunton era and the widespread public and media hounding that followed, the appointment of the grizzled Italian rejuvenated the national side.

In a qualifying campaign that has included commendable results against world champions Italy and a well-regarded Bulgaria, we have seen a form of the traditional Italian catenaccio method. Ireland will win no plaudits for swashbuckling football, but they will prove uncompromising opponents in a system wholly concerned with results.

If Trapattoni’s Ireland are coarse and united, the opposite can be said of Raymond Domenech’s France. The much-maligned Domenech has failed thus far to reap the benefits of an unrivalled pool of talent, frustrating fans and players alike.

The French suffered a lacklustre start to their campaign with defeat against Austria followed by poor performances against the Faroe Islands and Lithuania before rallying to finishing second to Serbia by a single point. The individual brilliance of Henry and Benzema, amongst others, means that this team will always threaten no matter the opponent. This abundance of cavalier players at Domenech’s disposal may yet carry France through to another World Cup.

The Republic will hope to frustrate these players in the same manner they have done since the opening fixture of qualification against Georgia. If Ireland’s usual midfield pairing of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews can stem the flow of play and cut off the French attackers’ supply early, they will grow in confidence. A good result in Croke Park will set up a tantalising showdown in Paris with a heavily pressurised Les Bleus. The possibility remains that France’s pace will prove too much for the Irish fullbacks to handle, while the guile of Thierry Henry will conjure images of his heartbreaking strike at Lansdowne Road in 2005.

Trapattoni insists Ireland will not fear France but is under no illusions as to how difficult an undertaking faces his side. He will approach the game with the same principles of hard work and determination he has preached since becoming caretaker manager of AC Milan in 1974.

“Now we face the World Cup finalists and our results will give us the conviction and belief that we can get a result,” the former Juventus manager told the press, with his usual glint of optimism. “We have done well so far but over the 180 minutes we must give something additional and we will have to be even more concentrated and focused than we have until now.” He would have it no other way.

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