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Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Trapattoni likes Ireland's chances in playoff


LONDON — The Republic of Ireland takes on France and FIFA on Saturday in the first leg of a 2010 World Cup playoff.

Christopher Davies

FIFA, whose motto is Fair Play, changed the playoff procedure a month before the qualifying program ended, which seemed rather unfair play. Having initially written to all national associations to tell them the playoff draw would be open, world football's governing body changed its mind and decided the draw would be seeded.

Big difference.

To move the goalposts after a competition has started leaves FIFA open to accusations of favoring the bigger football nations like France. By sheer coincidence UEFA president Michel Platini, the man many see as the successor to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, is French.

The possibility of France vs. Portugal or Russia was eliminated by FIFA's 11th hour about-ace which meant the promised open draw became seeded, thus favoring those teams higher up the world rankings.

To say Ireland felt cheated would be an understatement, but the sense of injustice will be used as extra motivation when Les Bleus come to Croke Park.

On the face of it France should win because player-for-player it is far stronger.

It boasts Premier League household names such as William Gallas, Patrice Evra, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Bakary Sagna.

Ireland has Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews.

But Ireland has Giovanni Trapattoni as coach, whereas France has Raymond Domenech in charge.

The Italian is considered the most successful coach in Europe, the only man to have won all UEFA club competitions and the Intercontinental Cup. He is one of only two coaches (the Austrian Ernst Happel is the other) to win league titles in four different countries — Italy, Germany, Portugal and Austria.

To the surprise and delight of Ireland, he led the Republic through the qualifying program unbeaten in a group that included world champion Italy and Bulgaria. Ireland is far from pretty to watch but given the players at his disposal Trap has worked a football miracle to guide the Republic this far.

In contrast, Domenech is a figure of fun in France. Despite reaching the 2006 World Cup final where France lost to Italy, Domenech will be remembered for the amount of criticism he attracted. There is even a Web site called Is Raymond Domenech The Worst Tactician In The World?

He is openly mocked by the media, fans and even his own players and it is a source of amazement that Domenech is still in charge. A man who seems to believe astrology is as important as tactics, Domenech once said Leos don't make good defenders.

They make good forwards — ask Leo Messi.

Trapattoni confirmed he does not select teams by virtue of players' star signs. "I believe in other things," he said.

But he knows Ireland will have to be at its absolute best tonight and in Paris on Wednesday to reach the finals. Drawing twice with Italy has raised Irish confidence but Trapattoni said: "We need extra for these games. Of course, we must not forget that we finished our group unbeaten. It's important not to be arrogant, because arrogance is dangerous. We need the mentality to realize why we didn't lose in this group.

"They are a strong team. So we must remain calm in every little situation. With a silly mistake or distraction you can lose a goal; we know that from the game against Italy last month. I know the quality of the French players but I'm not scared about this either."

In Shay Given, Ireland has the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. The back four of John O'Shea (Man United), Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), Sean St. Ledger (Middlesbrough) and Kevin Kilbane (Hull) are well protected by midfield enforcers Whelan (Stroke) and Andrews (Blackburn).

On the flanks Aiden McGeady (Celtic) and Damien Duff (Fulham) will have to limit the danger of France fullbacks Sagna and Evra while creating chances for Robbie Keane (Spurs) and Kevin Doyle (Wolves).

"In Trap We Trust" is the slogan on one Ireland T-shirt and maybe the Italian can have the last laugh with the French clown?

* * * * *

AS WAYNE ROONEY left the field after Manchester United's 1-0 defeat at Chelsea last Sunday he mouthed something about 12 men at a television camera.

The obvious conclusion was that Rooney felt referee Martin Atkinson was biased toward Chelsea. For questioning the impartiality and integrity of a referee, the Football Association decided it was not worth charging Rooney, who merely received a caution as to his future behavior.

In other words, Rooney was let off and the F.A. didn't think challenging Atkinson's honesty was a particularly bad thing.

Fact: Wayne Rooney is the England center-forward who the F.A. uses in a number of promotional sponsorships. Of course, anyone who thinks that had any bearing on its decision would be questioning the impartiality of English football's governing body — a dreadful accusation.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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