PARIS (AFP) - The prospect of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry will move a step closer if Portugal and France come unstuck in the first leg of their World Cup play-offs on Saturday.
Having failed to secure automatic qualification for the South Africa showpiece, Portugal must overcome Bosnia-Herzegovina while France face a stern test against Giovanni Trapattoni's rejuvenated Republic of Ireland.
Both France and Portugal, who lost to the French in the 2006 semi-finals, have been hampered by injury, with Les Bleus deprived of the services of Franck Ribery and Portugal missing talismanic captain Ronaldo.
France coach Raymond Domenech, apparently immune to the welter of public criticism which has rained down on him for much of his tenure, insists the French will go through.
"I know my men are ready," said Domenech, whose side face Ireland in Dublin on Saturday prior to the return leg in Paris next Wednesday.
"Any pressure is internal. If the players don't feel it inside then there's something wrong and they have no place here."
Yet even as Domenech seeks to throw a protective arm around his squad he himself has been squarely in the firing line, coming in for criticism from the Irish and his own countrymen alike.
Ireland defender Richard Dunne, whose side went unbeaten in qualifying only to be pipped to automatic qualification from Group Eight by reigning champions Italy, insists that with the likes of Henry and Nicolas Anelka on board, France should already be through.
"Every time a tournament comes round, France have all these world-class players and then a man who seems intent on messing them up," Dunne told The Guardian newspaper.
"And we know that if we can get in front, they probably have not got the man at the top to pull them back around."
Domenech took time out to attend the Paris Masters tennis tournament this week and was promptly booed by fans when cameras picked him out in the crowd.
And L'Equipe sports daily picked up on criticism by depicting the Irish team lined up behind Domenech beneath the headline, 'Their luck is him!'
Former Irish star Liam Brady, now an assistant to Trapattoni, says the men in green fear nobody.
"The pressure is on them more so than us, but we are both playing for a place in the World Cup finals, so it's enormous," he said.
"But if we were to carry a lead to Paris, the pressure would pile on them."
French forward Sidney Govou shrugged off the mind games regarding Domenech.
"They (the critics) just want to put the pressure on - but it's not him who'll be out there on the pitch."
For Portugal's Deco, meanwhile, the loss of Ronaldo must not be allowed to weigh too heavily on Carlos Queiroz's side.
"We have enough quality to plug the gap - we can't use his absence as an excuse. We know it won't be easy but we are confident," the Chelsea midfielder insisted.
As France and Portugal seek redemption in the form of tickets to South Africa, 2004 European champions Greece also face a fight as they go up against Ukraine, who edged Croatia out of the runners-up spot in England's group.
The inconsistent Greeks lost out in their group to Switzerland and have the perceived disadvantage of playing the second leg away.
Guus Hiddink's Russia, who were unable to overhaul Germany in their group, host Slovenia.
"We should never underestimate Slovenia on any account," Hiddink warned his Euro 2008 semi-finalists.
Outside Europe, New Zealand, who appeared in the 1982 finals, take on would-be debutants Bahrain in Wellington following a goalless draw in Manama in the opening leg, while Costa Rica meet Uruguay in San Jose on Sunday.
|Santos: Group-stage performances behind Portugal|
|Cacic: We cannot let Ronaldo show his strength|
|O´Neill hopes to blow Bale off course|
|Coleman impressed with Ramsey´s discipline|
|O´Neill fires derby passions ahead of Wales showdown|
|Coleman: Take emotion out of Northern Ireland clash|
|LFP sanctions six Nice players for flouting gambling rules|
|Hungary v Belgium: Lukaku targets last-four spot|
|Dyke hopes Brexit can help England youngsters|
|No favourites against Italy, says Koke|
|Krychowiak not thinking about PSG as Poland stand by Lewandowski|
|World Cup qualifying: Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria drawn in same group|
|Brexit may damage Premier League´s pursuit of young European players|
|Germany v Slovakia: Weiss confident of repeat Augsburg success|
|France v Republic of Ireland: Long not on Henry revenge mission|
|Chelsea midfielder Baker extends Vitesse loan|
|Chiellini concerned over Brexit ´domino effect´|
|Staying in Euro 2016 gets Coleman´s vote|
|Nainggolan has a room with a balcony so he can smoke - Wilmots|
|Petkovic attempts Poland mind games|
|Wilmots would rather play Spain than Hungary|
|Morata deserves more than being a Madrid bargaining chip - Chiellini|
|AZ want record fee for Janssen|
|What does Brexit mean for European football?|
|I´m not tired, I feel sharp - Kane hits back at critics|
|Delighted Kiyotake hopes to prove his value|
|Premier League confident Brexit will not diminish its success|
|Neuer wary of Hamsik´s long-range shots|
|Genesio: Lyon do not have to sell|
|Morata thanks Juventus fans after Real Madrid return|
|Lapadula undergoes AC Milan medical|
|Santos: Not everything revolves around Ronaldo|
|Icelandic chihuahua prepares to chase the England rhino|
|Jakupovic signs new Hull City contract|
|Lagerback: Brexit will not affect England team|
|ES Setif disqualified from CAF Champions League|
|Gerland sees Kimmich as Lahm´s long-term successor|
|Navas ´recovering nicely´ from heel injury|
|Messi excited by future Barcelona challenges|
|Conte´s Italy like Atletico and Barcelona, says Xavi|
|Zidane the man to take Madrid forward, says Baptista|
|United States v Colombia: Hosts out to end Copa America on a high|
|Aubameyang: It´s my dream to play in Spain|
|Wenger not interested in France job|
|Ronaldo: Euro 2016 surprises end now for Portugal|
|Coke hopeful Sampaoli can exceed Emery at Sevilla|
|Maradona: Portugal too dependent on Ronaldo|
|´What a disaster´ - Messi takes aim at AFA|
|Guidetti: Nolito will thrive at City|
|Wanyama thanks Southampton fans following Spurs switch|
|Kranjcar: Rangers can push Celtic all the way|
|Euro 2016 Diary: Icelandic heaven and Rooney not feeling the love|
|Wenger respects Vardy, talks up Kante|
|Rooney wants to end ´disappointing´ tournament record for England|
|Di Maria in serious doubt for Copa America final|
|´We gave it all´, Alaba tells Austria fans|
|Euro 2016 Social Round-Up: Last 16 sides prepare for the knockout rounds|
|Osorio to stay on as Mexico manager despite Copa humbling|
|Tottenham complete Wanyama signing|
|Claridge: England are misusing Jamie Vardy|
|Marseille complete double swoop|
|Wales v Northern Ireland: Evans eager to prolong Irish dream|
|Underdog heroics justify UEFA´s bulkier Euros|
|Atletico Madrid president confirms Vrsaljko move|
|Rejecting Arsenal a ´mature´ move for Leicester star Vardy - Claridge|
|Switzerland v Poland: Seferovic targets final, Pazdan staying humble|
|Juanfran: Spain can use Atletico´s philosophy|
|´It’s always nice to finish above the English´ - Bale sticks the boot in again|
|Euro 2016´s top five moments so far: Payet cries a river as newcomers steal the show|
|Galatasaray fail in CAS appeal|
|´Nice will forever be in my heart´ - How France legend Just Fontaine kickstarted his career on the C|
|Team of the Euro 2016 group stage: Payet, Perisic join blistering Bale|
|The flop XI of the Euro 2016 group stage: Kane and Ibrahimovic join limp Lewandowski|
|O´Neill delighted with Northern Ireland draw placing|
|Germany optimistic on Boateng fitness|
|Croatia v Portugal: Cacic determined to spring another shock|
|Icelandic strongman Magnusson mocks Portugal´s Ronaldo|
|Noble expects West Ham stay for Payet|
|Petrov joins Villa for pre-season camp|
|´We always score our penalties´ - Hallgrimsson sends warning to England|
|Kalinic expects Croatia to progress|
|Rooney respect for Hodgson´s Slovakia gamble|
|Vardy stays at Leicester: Champions buoyed, but what next for Arsenal?|
|Lafferty backs Northern Ireland to go all the way|
|Elmohamady extends Hull stay|
|Hodgson demands ruthlessness from England to open up Iceland|
|´He was nearly dead six years ago´ - Coleman full of admiration for Duffy|
|Rangers seal Kranjcar deal|
|Iniesta wary of ´powerful´ Italy|
|I wanted to rest Gera - Storck|
|Gera living late career dream after waking from injury nightmare|
|Vardy to stay at Leicester after agreeing new contract|
|Morata still wanted by ´top Premier League clubs´|
|Sigurdsson warns Iceland of danger posed by golf buddy Kane|
|Pekerman furious with referee after Colombia´s Copa exit|
|Euro 2016 is wide open, says Cahill|
|Pizzi hails Chile´s ´winners´ mentality|
|Bjarnason hails team spirit among Iceland friends|
|Coentrao defends Ronaldo: ´Speak now, parrots!´|
|MLS Review: Alberg hat-trick inspires Union, RSL leave it late|
|Conte: I´m not from the moon, I know Spain are good|
|Santos wants more from Ronaldo|
|Colombia 0 Chile 2: Early goals see defending champions into Copa final|
|Martino receives Di Maria boost ahead of Copa final|
|De Gea thanks his critics for motivating him|
|Barca not contemplating Neymar exit|
|Pain before pleasure for Sigurdsson and Iceland´s heroes|
|Lavezzi remains upbeat despite Copa-ending injury|
|Smell of injustice: Swedish player cops farting red|
|Ibrahimovic ´very proud´ of Sweden career|
|Euro 2016 Diary: Germany grab the sunloungers, Benzema on the beach and life through a lens|
|´If you don´t know nothing, keep quiet´ - Deeney responds to speculation|
|Wilmots: Belgium must be more clinical|
|Vote remain and we´ll forgive you for 1966! - German newspaper wade into Brexit debate|
|Hamren: Sweden will never find another Ibrahimovic|
|Conte: Ireland got more than they deserved|
|O´Neill hails Ireland heroes|
|Hazard: Ibrahimovic not done yet|