PARIS (AFP) - Three years ago France beat Portugal in the World Cup semi-final - on Wednesday both could fail to even reach the 2010 finals as they take narrow leads into their play-off second leg clashes.
France, champions in 1998, hold a 1-0 lead over the Republic of Ireland while Portugal hold the same advantage over Bosnia Hercegovina though the French unlike the Portuguese have the added advantage of it being an away goal.
The other two play-offs see Euro 2008 semi-finalists Russia also looking a bit shaky as they take a 2-1 lead to Slovenia while Ukraine - who made the 2006 finals - have everything to play for when they host Euro 2004 champions Greece in Donetsk as they are tied at 0-0.
The French-Irish clash looks likely to be a high octane affair after the angry exchanges between rival players at the end of the match in Dublin on Saturday provoked by derogatory remarks by Real Madrid midfielder Lassana Diarra. Related article: France eye World Cup slot
"They were disrespectful and anti-Irish," commented Irish midfielder Keith Andrews.
"Everyone knows what he (Diarra) said but we don't need those to get ourselves motivated for the match."
The Irish, though, face a mountain of a task to overcome the deficit as they have not beaten a top-ranked side away from home since beating Turkey 3-1 in the Euro '92 qualifiers - which they didn't reach and to be fair the Turks really became a top side from 2000 onwards.
However, their veteran Italian coach Giovanni Trapattoni used another statistic to add evidence to his belief that the men in green can turn it around.
"I have reminded my players that we scored in every one of our away matches in the qualifiers save against Montenegro (including world champions Italy) - a group that was of a better quality than that of France," said the former Italy national coach. Related article: Italians playing for World Cup places
"Winning 1-0 may be enough as then it goes to extra-time and then penalties," he added.
His France counterpart Raymond Domenech was frank about where he saw the situation lying.
"We have to play, because for me the match begins at 0-0," said the sphinx-like coach, who guided France to the 2006 final but has rarely won over either the fans or the press.
"Our strong point is our ability to score goals. There is no point thinking they are coming here to pose us problems. We have to take the match by the scruff of the neck. Playing to win is the best fashion of doing it."
Bosnia and Portugal's match should be an interesting encounter given that Bosnian coach Miroslav Blazevic ever the eccentric handler - though it worked wonders with Croatia in the 1998 finals when he took them to the semi-finals where they led France before losing 2-1 - has promised some savage entertainment.
"In the next few days I will have to create such an atmosphere among the players so they attack the Portuguese like hungry wolves," said the 74-year-old in an interview with the Dnevni Avaz daily. Related article: Bosnia coach says squad will be 'hungry wolves'
The Bosnians can take great heart that not only will there be no Cristiano Ronaldo as in the first leg but that they hit the woodwork three times in the first leg.
With this in mind the Portuguese are convinced they should go all out in attack to get what could be a crucial away goal. Related article: Shevchenko warns Ukraine of tough battle
"When it is necessary to defend, we have to do it well, but we will attack when the possibility arises," said Chelsea's veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho, who was a member of the side that reached the 2006 World Cup semi-finals.
"We are not going to play defensively, because if we score, that will complicate things for them."
Coach Guus Hiddink is optimistic Russia will make it to the 2010 World Cup despite play-off rivals Slovenia grabbing an away goal.
Ahead of Wednesday's second leg in Maribor Hiddink said there was no cause for panic.
"Of course, I was dissappointed with the result," the Dutchman said.
"We were leading 2-0 and had plenty of chances to increase our advantage.
"But I thing there's no need to go from one extreme to another. We did not lose the first match we won it! And there's no room for panic."
Ukraine star Andrei Shevchenko has warned his teammates to be prepared for a tough battle against Greece.
"We and Greece have a 50-50 chance to reach next year's finals," Shevchenko said.
"In Athens we played very good in defence and, I believe, we could repeat such a performance in Donetsk."
|Coach: R. Domenech|
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