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Can Ireland give France Les Bleus?

World Cup play-off: Republic of Ireland v France
First leg: Croke Park, Dublin Date: Saturday, 14 November (2000 GMT)
Second leg: Stade de France, Paris Date: Wed, 18 November (2000 GMT)
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and online, plus text commentary on BBC Sport website and mobiles. Also live on Sky Sports 1.

Clockwise from bottom left: Thierry Henry, Raymond Domenech and Giovanni Trapattoni
Domenech is almost certain to lose his job if his side, captain by Thierry Henry, are beaten by Giovanni Trapattoni's Ireland in their 2010 World Cup play-off

By David Ornstein

When France are led on to the field by captain Thierry Henry this Saturday, they will be hit by an almighty wall of noise as Croke Park reverberates to the sound of 70,000 Ireland fans urging their team to glory.

It will surely then dawn on Les Bleus that the unthinkable prospect of missing out on a place at the 2010 World Cup is now very real indeed.

No more insults, no more mind games. France versus Ireland, over two legs, for one place in South Africa.

"I want to believe until the end that we will qualify because a World Cup without France is not the same," Marcel Desailly, a key member of their 1998 World Cup winning side, told BBC Sport.

"When you see the likes of Henry at Barcelona, Karim Benzema at Real Madrid, Samir Nasri and William Gallas at Arsenal, France have big players and plenty of quality.

"They must make it to the World Cup; there is no excuse for them not being there."

David O, BBC Sport

Patrice Evra, the France left-back, insists this play-off is bigger than any of the three Champions League finals he has contested at club level and claims it would be a "scandal" if his side failed to reach the finals.

France are the favourites to progress having appeared in 12 of the previous 18 World Cups to Ireland's three. The Irish have never made it beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament; France have won two European Championships and one World Cup.

The world's sixth most successful national team, France lost to Italy on penalties in the 2006 World Cup final and currently lie ninth in the Fifa rankings while Ireland sit 24th.

But the tie will not be decided by past achievements and France could be forgiven for approaching the double-header with a sense of trepidation.

Ireland were one of only five sides to come through qualifying unbeaten and did so in group eight, which included reigning world champions Italy. They even came within seconds of beating the Azzurri in the penultimate round of matches.

Ireland: Given; O'Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Kilbane; Lawrence, Whelan, Andrews, Duff; Keane, Doyle
France: Lloris; Sagna, Gallas, Abidal, Evra; Toulalan, A Diarra; Gourcuff; Anelka, Henry; Gignac

In Giovanni Trapattoni, they are led by one of the most decorated managers in football history and the 70-year-old Italian is more than capable of masterminding what would be a huge upset.

Comfortable victories over the Faroe Islands and Austria in their final two qualifiers provided a timely confidence boost to a France squad who began qualifying with a 3-1 defeat in Vienna and scored just 10 goals in their opening eight matches, eventually finishing second in group seven behind Serbia.

"Throughout the campaign, France have never shown that they have a plan in terms of attacking or defending," said Xavier Rivoire of France Football magazine. "They've always shown fragility and instability."

Not for the first time, the French media and public have pinned the blame for their struggles on enigmatic coach Raymond Domenech.

The 57-year-old's five-year tenure has swung from the highs of a World Cup final appearance to the lows of a group-stage exit at Euro 2008, but if France fail to reach South Africa he is almost certainly going to be sacked.

"From match one, they shot themselves in the foot," said Rivoire, referring to the Austria defeat. "It was a terrible start and maybe Domenech should have been fired then.

"If the French Football Federation had guts they would have done so but by doing that it would be proof of their bad choice from the start. They want to legitimise this choice by keeping him in power."

Rumours of unrest in the camp have been played down by Domenech and his players, most notably when Henry denied launching a stinging attack on his coach before September's 1-1 draw with Romania.

The former Arsenal striker was reported to have informed Domenech that the squad were bored of his training sessions and lacked organisation, instructions and a playing style.

"When you're a national team coach you need to have a plan of how you're going to play," explained Rivoire. "Fabio Capello has one with England, Marcello Lippi has one with Italy. But, from the very start, Domenech had no plan.

"He said on French TV that it's not the coach or the tactics that make the team but the players. How can you say such a thing? Even if you have very talented players, you're the one leading, you're the one telling them what to do. It's not up to them to make the tactics.

"That has been France's problem for the last six years."

Played: 70
Won: 39
Drawn: 21
Lost: 10
Goals for per game: 1.46
Goals against per game: 0.63
Win percentage: 56%

Domenech was heckled by spectators at the Paris Masters tennis event on Monday and some of his players, also in the crowd, could be seen laughing at his expense.

But Desailly feels it is about time some criticism was levelled at the players and has urged them to stop hiding behind Domenech.

"With the talented players we have, we should really be playing a lot better," said the former AC Milan and Chelsea defender, who thinks France will lose the first leg in Dublin but bounce back four days later in Paris to qualify. "We're not seeing the players expressing themselves at the level that they are capable of.

"When the team has not played well, they are afraid of the criticism that might follow. We have good players but we do not have enough leaders."

Aside from Henry and Nicolas Anelka, France's key threats are likely to come from in-form Bordeaux playmaker Joann Gourcuff and lethal Toulouse striker Andre-Pierre Gignac, a fiercely proud member of the Gypsy community who finished top scorer in France last season with 24 goals and has become an integral part of Domenech's plans.

So France are well blessed from an attacking perspective but concerns persist over their ability to match Ireland for intensity, work rate, passion, physicality and team spirit.

In September, Benzema was quoted as saying "I do not really try my hardest in a French shirt" but in the second half of their qualifying campaign Les Bleus showed they do possess fight and the reward on offer is certain to rouse them for this one.

Desailly is confident that if France manage to avoid being drawn into a physical battle, deal with the intense pressure that will arrive from set-pieces and showcase their technical capabilities, they should have enough to win.

He is adamant that "this group has the talent to produce more than my generation" and says beating Ireland could well provide "a click" that drives them on to greatness.

"They needed this kind of reality check," added Rivoire. "There is no way back now, they are facing a green wall that is Ireland and either they break through it or crash in spectacular fashion.

"When you play for the biggest teams in Europe you should be able to handle the pressure of these occasions. If the French can't do it that means they aren't ready to play in a World Cup.

"We experienced a lost generation when the team with David Ginola and Eric Cantona failed to reach USA 1994. It will be a disaster if that happens again."

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see also
Brady sets sights on France upset
12 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Lawro on the Republic
10 Nov 09 |  Football
World Cup qualifying reaches climax
13 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Republic of Ireland need Reid magic
11 Nov 09 |  Football
Miller withdraws from Irish squad
11 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Doyle upbeat for France play-off
09 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Duff fitness boost for Republic
08 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Who has qualified for South Africa 2010?
19 Nov 09 |  Internationals
Republic face France in play-offs
19 Oct 09 |  Internationals
Domenech to stay as France coach
15 Oct 08 |  Internationals
A rebuilding job for Les Bleus
18 Jun 08 |  France
Not everybody loves Raymond
09 Jul 06 |  France

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