The verbal jousting ahead of the World Cup play-off gained a bitter edge yesterday with Liam Brady suggesting that Fifa's controversial decision to seed the draw places the spotlight on the match officials and the French defender Eric Abidal warning of "malice and provocation" from Giovanni Trapattoni's side.
Brady, Ireland's assistant manager, who was on the receiving end of refereeing decisions as player that prevented him from participating in a major championship, believes that the integrity of Germany's Felix Brych and Sweden's Martin Hansson, who take charge of the first and second legs respectively, could be central to the outcome. Fifa's last-minute decision to seed the play-off draw has been interpreted in Irish quarters as an attempt to ensure that bigger nations such as France make it to the finals in South Africa next summer.
"The focus is on the referees particularly as Fifa changed the seeding and made it easier for the more glamorous teams," said Brady yesterday. "But the referees are at the top of their game. They are two Champions League referees and the spotlight will be on them. I've had experience of playing against the French going back 20 years and the one thing you didn't get is a good referee.
"We have to believe that's the case this time because they will be thoroughly scrutinised. We expect better refereeing than when I was a player," added Brady, who missed out on the 1982 World Cup after Ireland inexplicably had a goal disallowed before conceding from a dubious free kick in the final minutes of their infamous concluding qualifier in Belgium.
Brady also believes the passion of coach Trapattoni can help his side evoke the spirit of Italia 90. The Irish achieved their best-ever result in a major tournament when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup 19 years ago. However, despite a spirited performance, they were narrowly edged out 1-0 by the host nation and have reached just two of nine tournaments since.
"Certainly we have the enthusiasm [of the Italia 90 team]," Brady said. "I would say in 1990 we probably had a bigger group of really good players. But Trapattoni's passion rubs off on this group, without any doubt. Under him I think the lads who have emerged, like Glenn Whelan at Stoke and Keith Andrews at Blackburn, boys who hadn't been capped before he took over, have really grown into the role. They have the bit between their teeth and I think they will show it.
"France have got a lot of really top class players, fine individual players. But we are a fine team, well organised and have a great team spirit. I think the French are probably under more pressure than we are. We would love to go to the World Cup, that goes without saying, but they are under a bit of pressure and maybe that will work in our favour."
However, France's Barcelona defender Abidal is wary of Irish skulduggery in the crunch encounters, predicting that Trapattoni's charges will employ every trick in the book to win the set pieces the French are apprehensive about.
"There will be a little malice and provocation," said Abidal. "We must see what happens and not get caught up in the trap. It's part of football, a strategy. They will try to tease us."