The Irish will take on the French in the first of two games at Croke Park on Saturday, Nov. 14, and they then travel to Paris for the crucial return leg four days later.
If France’s form of late has been decidedly patchy, they won the World Cup in 1998 and were crowned European champions two years later, and they reached the final again in 2006 only to lose to Italy.
“We have come through our group unbeaten and we’ve drawn twice with the current World champions Italy. We have demonstrated that we can perform against any team,” said Ireland manager, Giovanni Trapattoni. “It’ll be like a cup final over two legs. We have the conviction and the belief that we can get a result.”
To compound the difficulty in seeing off such top-quality opposition who have Thierry Henry, Franck Ribery, Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema in their ranks, Ireland would have preferred to have had the second leg at home. “That now makes it very important not to concede a goal in the first leg,” said Trapattoni, “but we have shown we’re capable of getting results away from home.”
The Irish drew 0-0 with Montenegro at Croke Park last week in the last qualifying game of the group. With Italy already sure of automatic qualification for next year’s finals in South Africa, the outcome was irrelevant, and a low-key match was really only significant for the fact that Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane each made their 100th international appearance.
Meanwhile, the France coach, Raymond Domenech, upped the ante before the two play-off games by referring to Ireland as the England B team. “We know all their players because they play in the English leagues. There won’t be any surprises, we know what to expect,” said Domenech. “They are very solid, very physical, but we also have those qualities. They are the England Bs.”
However, the French technical director and former Liverpool manager, Gerard Houllier, put a different slant on the challenge ahead. “We didn’t want to meet them, and they didn’t want to meet us. Now everyone’s happy!”