Keane eyes chance to 'kill off' Bulgaria

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The Independent Online

Bulgaria at Croke Park tonight, Italy in Bari on Wednesday: the Republic of Ireland have reached a stage in the group and in their development under Giovanni Trapattoni when serious tests of their ability have arrived. Pass one and the Irish can begin to think of a play-off place for next year's World Cup, pass both and they may even be able to think about getting to South Africa automatically.

All agree this is the most significant qualifying moment since the Netherlands were beaten 1-0 at Lansdowne Road in 2001, helping send the Irish to Japan and South Korea. "Let's get over the first hurdle first," said Robbie Keane in windswept Malahide yesterday. That entails overcoming a Bulgaria side that may or may not include Keane's former Tottenham colleague Dimitar Berbatov, the subject of fluctuating injury reports.

But if they do win, Keane agreed that Bulgaria would be "killed off". Given that Bulgaria have played only three matches and drawn the three, that could seem premature, but in playing one match more the Italians and the Irish have a seven-point advantage over Bulgaria. No wonder then, that in the curious blizzard of words from Trapattoni yesterday, "distance" was heard repeatedly. "This is probably our best opportunity for a long time," Keane said. "It is going to be tough but we have to be looking to win these games if we are to qualify. It's a big test." It has been made easier by the uncertainty over Berbatov, injuries to other key Bulgarians and a sense – a hope – that the apparent unease within the visitors' camp, which has seen a new manager brought in, is illustrative of a broader malaise.

But this cannot be banked on, as Trapattoni warned. "They have more than famous players," he said, referring to Berbatov. "I saw their last game in Switzerland – they were a different team, more aggressive." The alarming memory of Georgia's first-minute goal in Dublin last month is with all of Trapattoni's squad. It took Keane 71 minutes to equalise and another six to find a winner. "That goal against Georgia wasn't the start we wanted but we showed tremendous character," said Trapattoni's assistant, Liam Brady.

It is one of only two goals conceded in four games and Brady stressed the defensive discipline of Trapattoni. "It can be a little bit boring for players to have to work on things – repetition, repetition – but in the end those things can make a difference and that's the kind of manager he is," Brady added. Asked if Trapattoni was always this way, Brady replied: "Absolutely. He can remember goals that he got from a set-piece in 1977 that he reckons made the difference in winning the championship." Yesterday Trapattoni said that winning is everything even if the Irish performance is "so-so".

Damien Duff's fresh injury is a hindrance but the experienced Stephen Hunt can step in. A wave of optimism created last Saturday by the Ireland rugby team and Dublin boxer Bernard Dunne is there to be surfed.

Republic of Ireland (possible, 4-4-2): Given (Manchester City); McShane (Sunderland), O'Shea (Manchester United), Dunne (Manchester City), Kilbane (Hull City); Hunt (Reading), Whelan (Stoke City), Andrews (Blackburn), McGeady (Celtic); Keane (Tottenham), Doyle (Reading).

Bulgaria (possible, 4-5-1): Petkov (Levski Sofia); Milanov (Levski S), Tomashich (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Topuzakov (Hapoel Tel Aviv), Manolev (Litex Lovech); Georgiev (Terek Grozni), Telkiyski (Hapoel TA), S Petrov (Aston Villa), Angelov (Energie Cottbus), Popov (Litex L); Rangelov (Energie C).

Referee: I Bebek (Croatia).

Group Eight: Results and fixtures

*Republic of Ireland results so far Georgia 1 Rep of Ire 1, Montenegro 0 Rep of Ire 0, Rep of Ire 1 Cyprus 0, Rep of Ire 2 Georgia 1.

*Remaining fixtures: Tonight Rep of Ire v Bulgaria, Wed Italy v Rep of Ire, 6 June Bulgaria v Rep of Ire, 5 Sep Cyprus v Rep of Ire, 10 Oct Rep of Ire v Italy, 14 Oct Rep of Ire v Montenegro

......... P......... W......... D......... L......... F......... A......... Pts

Italy.........  4......... 3......... 1......... 0......... 6......... 2......... 10

Republic of Ireland......... 4......... 3......... 1......... 0......... 5......... 2......... 10

Bulgaria......... 3......... 0......... 3......... 0......... 2......... 2......... 3

Montenegro......... 3......... 0......... 2......... 1......... 3......... 4 ......... 2

Georgia......... 5......... 0......... 2......... 3......... 3......... 7......... 2

Cyprus......... 3......... 0......... 1......... 2......... 2......... 4 ......... 1

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