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.
|Aguero ´could miss up to two months´|
|Guardiola lauds Ballon d´Or nominee Ribery|
|Liverpool open Suarez contract talks|
|Copa del Rey Wrap: Barcelona, Levante cruise through|
|A-League Preview: Derby date beckons for winless Heart|
|Pearson upbeat despite Leicester defeat|
|Poyet urges Sunderland to build on Chelsea win|
|Mourinho rues missed chances|
|Pellegrini proud of professional Manchester City|
|Bayern on another level, says Beckenbauer|
|League Cup: Sunderland 2 Chelsea 1 (aet)|
|League Cup: Leicester City 1 Manchester City 3|
|FIFA Club World Cup: Guangzhou Evergrande 0 Bayern Munich 3|
|Zenit and Olympiacos punished with partial stadium closures|
|Sherwood wants positive reaction|
|Ancelotti expected La Liga title fight|
|Moffat charged over betting allegations|
|Wilson appointed at Barnsley|
|Wilshere charged by FA|
|Gattuso determined to clear his name|
|Moyes slams sacking culture|
|Mackay refuses to resign despite owner criticism|
|Redknapp reluctant to take Taarabt back|
|Amat pleased with development|
|Hughes optimistic of League Cup progression|
|Perez: No bids for Di Maria|
|FIFPro demand transfer system overhaul|
|Edwards sacked by Perth Glory|
|Allardyce not fearing the sack|
|Howson commits to Norwich|
|Tevez resigned to Argentina snub|
|SFA uphold Butcher´s one-match ban|
|Zapata rules out United switch|
|European Ombudsman calls for action on Spanish tax complaint|
|Albrighton eyes new Villa deal|
|Bale to miss Copa del Rey clash with ´small injury´|
|Pardew will bide his time in January|
|Kreuzer confident of Hamburg improvement|
|Van der Sar: Moyes can turn United around|
|Maradona backs Ronaldo for Ballon d´Or|
|Tottenham warned off Klinsmann|
|Costa Rica Primera Division: Alajuelense 0 Herediano 0|
|Lyon wary of Chornomorets Odesa|
|Guardiola talks up Lippi, Evergrande|
|Chile Primera Division Wrap: Chile, Deportes Iquique reach final|
|Garcia laments defensive mistakes|
|La Liga: Real Valladolid 3 Celta Vigo 0|
|Allegri pleased with Milan character|
|Primeira Liga Wrap: Pacos remain bottom, Estoril beat Gil Vicente|
|Suarez: Too early for title talk|
|Serie A: Milan 2 Roma 2|
|Mackay told Cardiff will not spend ´a single penny´ in January|
|Super Lig: Trabzonspor 2 Bursaspor 2|
|League Cup Preview: Tottenham v West Ham|
|Whitecaps appoint Robinson as head coach|
|Mikel, Luiz expecting difficult Galatasaray encounters|
|Sherwood, Ferdinand, Ramsey take temporary charge of Tottenham|
|Kovac ´shocked´ by Simunic sanction|
|FIFA Club World Cup Preview: Raja Casablanca v Atletico Mineiro|
|Betis, Sevilla expecting tough ties|
|League Cup to introduce goalline technology|
|Simunic gets 10-match ban|
|Zola resigns from Watford post|
|League Cup Preview: Stoke City v Manchester United|
|Valencia fire Djukic|
|Nedved anticipating tough Trabzonspor tie|
|Benitez wary of Swansea threat|
|Drogba relishing Chelsea reunion|
|Swansea deserve Napoli tie - Laudrup|
|Atletico relishing Milan tie|
|Winning group was vital, says Manchester United secretary|
|Tymoshchuk talks up Zenit chances|
|Rolfes relishing PSG challenge|
|Poyet unsure on permanent Ki deal|
|Arsenal ´toughest team´ Bayern could have drawn - Boateng|
|Ancelotti warns of Schalke threat|
|Miles: Arsenal paid the price for second place|
|Pellegrini undaunted by Barca draw|
|Keller eager for Real test|
|Gandini content with Atletico draw|
|Aguero to miss ´at least a month´|
|Begiristain optimistic of Manchester City progression|
|Dortmund chief calls for repeat performance against Zenit|
|Deulofeu out for ´up to five weeks´|
|Juve and Fiorentina face potential meeting|
|Juve face Trabzonspor, Napoli handed Swansea tie|
|Juventus drawn against Trabzonspor in Europa League|
|Swansea and Hull handed FA charge|
|Garcia wary ahead of Milan challenge|
|Holders Bayern draw Arsenal in Champions League|
|Allardyce in talks with striker|
|Dortmund handed Zenit test|
|Atletico drawn against Milan|
|United paired with Olympiacos|
|Barcelona to face Manchester City|
|Tottenham part company with Villas-Boas|
|Lille have nothing to lose in Paris, says Girard|
|Hughes happy with Wilson displays|
|Fletcher: I am back for good|
|Suarez a ´dream´ player, says Wenger|
|Ribery eyeing treble repeat|
|Paulinho appeal likely|
|Martinez keen for Barkley to stay grounded|
|´Wonderful´ Flanagan hailed by Rodgers|
|Mazzarri slams referee after Napoli loss|
|Anigo unworried by gap to Lille|
|Simeone: Tough to match Barca´s results|
|Neuer eyes Club World Cup title|
|Conte hails ´incredible´ Juventus|
|Hyypia laments missed chances|
|Liga del Futbol Profesional Boliviano Wrap: Title battle still alive|
|Colombia Primera A: Atletico Nacional 2 Deportivo Cali 0 (2-0 agg)|
|Liga MX: America 1 Leon 3 (1-5 agg)|
|Venezuela Primera Division Wrap: Mineros de Guayana win title|
|Uruguay Primera Division Wrap: Danubio crowned champions|
|Argentina Primera Division Wrap: San Lorenzo clinch title|