Ireland relishing French test

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The Independent Online

Sean St Ledger has warned France's superstars they are in for a battle if they are to squeeze past the Republic of Ireland into next summer's World Cup finals.

The 24-year-old Middlesbrough defender, whose 87th-minute header very nearly claimed the scalp of reigning champions Italy earlier this month, saw his side handed a tough play-off tie against the 1998 winners in yesterday's draw.

Seeded France, currently in ninth place in the FIFA rankings, will head for Croke Park on Saturday, November 14 and then host Giovanni Trapattoni's men, who sit 34th in the table, four days later.

St Ledger said: "It's a tough draw and probably not one we would have chosen.

"They have a team full of stars and some of the world's best players - but they finished second in their group for a reason.

"I'm sure there will be a great atmosphere in both legs, but the support we will get at Croke Park will be brilliant and the noise our fans make will be invaluable.

"They should be two unbelievable games to play in.

"Of course, France are the favourites and I'm sure they will expect to win.

"But the Italy game gives us a lot of belief that we can do well against a really top side.

"As a nation and as a team, we always seem to rise to the occasion, so we can go into both legs with confidence.

"We are very organised under Mr Trapattoni and we will have a game plan to beat them."

Ireland have not beaten one of Europe's traditional powers since they defeated Holland during the qualifying tournament for the 2002 finals, but they drew home and away with the Italians during their unbeaten Group Eight campaign, and could have won both games.

But they knew they would land one of the four seeded teams when FIFA controversially announced earlier this month the draw would not be open, much to the annoyance of Trapattoni and senior players Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane.

However, there is little they or anyone else can do about that now, other than to concentrate on the task of booking their trip to South Africa the hard way.

For St Ledger, who won his first cap against Nigeria in May and has been ever-present since, that is an irresistible challenge.

He said: "I seem to have said this a lot recently, but this will be the biggest game of my life so far.

"Getting to the World Cup would be the pinnacle, so the two games against France will be massive. I look forward to it."

Elsewhere in the draw, Portugal were paired with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece will meet Ukraine and Russia and Slovenia will fight it out for the remaining place.

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