Les Bleus Wary but Have Air of Confidence


and footballing community yesterday gave
a cautious welcome to the news
that France will face Ireland
in next month's World Cup play-offs.

While the French Football Federation made it clear
they had wanted to avoid a trip to Ukraine,
many commentators had suggested
a two-legged tie against Giovanni
Trapattoni's side - with the second leg
taking place at Croke Park - would have
been the worst draw possible.

French sports daily L'Equipe reiterated
that opinion before yesterday's draw
and noted that Raymond Domenech does
not usually fare too well when
he comes up against an Italian adversary.

After finishing the qualifiers strongly,
there is a growing confidence
that the current French side have
turned a corner. But yesterday the overriding
feeling was a sense of relief that
the second leg would take place
at the Stade de France.

"Yes, that's the most important thing,"
the French Football Federation's technical
director Gerard Houllier said. "The first match
could almost be decisive in terms of qualification.
I think the atmosphere will be extraordinary
in the second game, with a lot of tension.
In the last few games, against Romania, Serbia,
the Faroe Isles and Austria, the team
and the supporters have reconnected."

The former Liverpool manager said it was
"a bad draw" for both teams but he maintained
that Domenech's side would know
what to expect from Ireland.

"Everyone knows about their spirit.
Their players are winners and very competitive.
They have a squad that's able to put
a lot of life into a match. But I'm sure there will
be moments that we can take advantage of.
They have Giovanni Trapattoni, who is
a great tactician, and a tremendous crowd behind them."

When pressed on whether France would be
the favourites, however, he was less forthcoming.

"I want to say yes but over two matches,
anything is possible. For me, it's going
to be a 50-50 game."

There is significant pressure on this crop
of French players to recapture some
of the spirit of a decade ago, and one of
the key figures of that period,
the 1998 World Cup-winning captain
Didier Deschamps, also stressed
the importance of playing the second leg in Paris.

"It's good to have the second game
at home," the Marseille manager said.
"Ireland did stay unbeaten in their qualifying group,
which included Italy. Les Bleus should
be wary but we already have some
good memories of this team."

Former Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires,
who played in the scoreless draw against
Ireland at the Stade de France in 2004, said they
would provide difficult opposition. "I think we'll suffer
until the very last second," he said.
"Because you know what the English style
of football is like - they play right to
the last minute. Ireland proved that
by giving Italy trouble, so we have
to be careful and pay attention."

Pires said Trapattoni could also play
a key role. "He's someone who knows
the game very well, so that's one
of the advantages Ireland have."

Nevertheless, the Villarreal star still feels
France will have enough class to qualify.
"The players will know that it'll be
a very difficult game, especially over there
because the stadium is big and
the atmosphere is hostile. But when
you look at the team that we have,
we should still qualify."

Former Leeds and Everton midfielder
Olivier Dacourt, who played in midfield
in the 2006 World Cup qualifier in Paris,
agreed with his former team-mate.

"It's not an easy draw but at the same time
France are good enough to go through,"
he said. "All the more so since Ireland
are very afraid of them after
the last games. It'll be a real battle where
they'll need to respond physically and
then assert their superior technical ability."

Originally published
by MARK RODDEN in Paris.

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Sent from Kigali, Rwanda

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