France handed tough Irish draw for playoffs

ZURICH: Former champions France have been handed a potentially tough test in their bid to qualify for the World Cup finals after drawing the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs Monday.

Giovanni Trapattoni's Irish side were one of the most impressive teams in their qualifying group eight, which was dominated by Italy.

And they were one of two teams, the other being Ukraine, the French wanted to avoid for the two-leg playoff in which Ireland play at home on November 14 before travelling to France four days later.

On the plus side for France is the fact they will travel to Dublin's Croke Park, where the capacity is around 82,000, first. A second leg there could have been a handicap.

"It's good to have the return match at home in France," said former World Cup winner and the team's captain in 1998, Didier Deschamps.

However Gerard Houllier, the French federation's director of football who said he had a "hunch" they would be drawn against Ireland, said the draw had been kind to neither team.

"It will be tough, but we believe we can win it especially as the second leg is in Paris," he said here Monday.

"Ireland are also not too happy with the draw. It's not a very good one for either of us."

David Blood, the president of the Irish football federation, was more defiant.

"Nobody wanted to draw Ireland because they know we've finished our qualification group unbeaten," he said.

"With Trapattoni (at the helm) we don't win by scoring lots of goals but we also don't lose a lot. It will be a great battle over 180 minutes."

Portugal, the runners-up in Group 1 behind winners Denmark, will meet Bosnia-Herzegovina over two legs with home advantage first.

Greece, runners-up in Group 2 behind Switzerland, will host Ukraine first before their second leg four days later while Russia host Slovenia first.

France had a mediocre start to qualifying in Group 7, won by Serbia, but eventually missed automaticentry by a point and finished seven points ahead of third-placed Austria.

While France were winners in 1998, the Republic of Ireland are bidding for only their fourth appearance at the finals, their last coming at the 2002 edition in Korea/Japan.

The two sides met in the 2006 World Cup qualifying stages sharing a 0-0 draw in Paris, while in Ireland Thierry Henry scored to give France the win.

Houllier said the first match at Croke Park will be crucial for their long-term chances, but he believes France are on the ascendancy and start as slight faourites.

"The first match is always the most important. It can practically assure your chances, or leave them in tatters," he said.

"France and Ireland start with a 50 percent chance each to win. The Irish usually play a high paced game, but there will be openings and weaknesses for us to exploit."

Asked if France were the favourites, Houllier added: "I almost want to say yes. But that means little. France are progressing gradually. The players are really determined to qualify for South Africa.

"We need that to continue."

Portugal also flattered to deceive at times in Group 1 and they will be wary of a Bosnia-Herzegovina side which is bidding for a first ever appearance at any major championships.

The group winners from the European zone who have already qualified are Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy and the Netherlands.

Draw for the World Cup qualifying playoffs:

Republic of Ireland v France

Portugal v Bosnia-Herzegovina

Greece v Ukraine

Russia v Slovenia

Note: playoffs to be contested November 14 and 18. Four play-off winners qualify for 2010 World Cup.