Given prepares to block Henry's march on goal

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The Independent Football

Shay Given rattles through the names in the French team in that rapid-fire lilt that's straight from County Donegal. "Barthez, Silvestre, Gallas at the back," he says "then Pires, Wiltord, Dacourt, Cissé. They're all good players and would play in any other team too."

The Republic of Ireland goalkeeper has just been asked if this is a good time to meet France following the retirements, injuries, suspensions and public disenchantment they have suffered at the start of the World Cup qualification campaign. "They have some players missing," Given acknowledges, "but they're still world class."

Interestingly, he omitted one name from his list: Thierry Henry. Perhaps Given did not want to tempt fate. After all the striker has scored three times against him in their last four meetings. "I know he's got a few against me," Given says, "but then there's not that many keepers he hasn't scored against."

True. But also, that's when Henry is playing for Arsenal. In internationals he has just two goals in 10 games and has been fiercely criticised in the French media. "People can write what they want, but you can't put a good player down," Given says. "He is one of the top three players in the world. He has pace and a great finish. He has everything. He scores goals out of nothing as he showed against Charlton. He's just a top player and if he gets his chance he will invariably put it away."

Unless Given can stop him. Although much of the pre-match build-up has centred, understandably, on Roy Keane, it is the Newcastle goalkeeper who may hold Ireland's fate in his hands. He was their best player in the previous qualifier against Switzerland, making a string of wonderful saves, and has conceded just three goals in his last 10 games for his country - including clean sheets against Brazil, Romania and the Netherlands. He is often at his best away from home.

Nevertheless, Given knows there has to be an improvement on that recent night in Basle, which shakily ended 1-1 and left Ireland sharing the lead in Group Four with France, Switzerland and Israel when they could have struck out on their own. "We have to do better," he says. "We let them [Switzerland] in too easily in the first half and we can't give those kind of chances to France."

Aged 28, Given is at the top of his game. Tonight, against a French side which shows six changes from the line-up that performed so poorly against the Faroe Islands, he will earn his 60th cap. Within a couple of years, Given will overhaul the record set by Packie Bonner, also, incidentally, from Donegal, of 80 caps for a goalkeeper. He wants 100. Playing for Ireland means a lot to Given - so much so that it prompted Dean Kiely to announce his international retirement last year because he realised he was simply not going to get a game.

Given wants to play, even in the friendliest of friendlies and furthermore, has an amazing ability to recover from injury. Little wonder his nickname is Lazarus. However, he almost missed this match. His wife, Jane, is due to give birth to their first child and Given joined up with the squad late.

"It's a big time in my life," he says. "But it's not difficult to stay focused." He trained in Newcastle "so I haven't missed anything". The baby is due soon. "But, fingers crossed, she [Jane] will hold out for a few days," Given says.

He wants to be there, but he's also desperate to be here. "When the draw was made we knew this would be the toughest game," he says. "It's hugely important. We have to try and get something. If we don't, it will be difficult for us to top the group. We are not coming here to lose or draw. We are trying to get the victory - but a draw would not be a bad result."

Part of the motivation is missing out on Euro 2004. "It was a huge disappointment not going to Portugal but that is history now," says Given. "It's important that we move forward and get to Germany." Certainly the Irish fans saved some money in not going and 35,000 are expected at the Stade de France. "It is great for the players who will walk out there and see the green, white and gold."

If Ireland do eventually qualify, it will be the fourth World Cup out of the last five that they have reached. However, and despite their problems, they will do well to finish ahead of the French as Ireland's coach, Brian Kerr, acknowledged when he too was asked whether it was a good time to play them. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe the best time to play them is when they are out of a competition." A win would go some way towards achieving that too.

France (4-4-2): Barthez (Marseille); Gallas (Chelsea), Squillaci, Givet (both Monaco), Silvestre (Manchester United); Wiltord (Lyon), Mavuba (Bordeaux), Dacourt (Roma), Pires; Henry (both Arsenal), D Cissé (Liverpool).

Republic of Ireland (probable 4-4-2): Given; Carr, O'Brien (all Newcastle United), Cunningham (Birmingham City), O'Shea (Manchester United); Finnan (Liverpool), Roy Keane (Manchester United), Kilbane (Everton), Duff (Chelsea); Morrison (Birmingham City), Robbie Keane (Tottenham Hotspur).

Referee: A Dauden Ibanez (Spain).

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