The race to the Finals
PORTUGAL star Deco insists that the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo is not going to derail the country’s bid to reach the World Cup finals in South Africa.
In other European play-offs the odds look stacked against the Republic of Ireland when they take on France in the first leg at Croke Park in Dublin today and in Moscow Russia coach Guus Hiddink warned his side not to under-estimate Slovenia when the two sides clash .
Carlos Queiroz’s Portuguese limped through their qualifying campaign looking nothing like the team which reached the 2006 semifinals under former handler Luiz Felipe Scolari.
After a dismal start they eventually muscled past Sweden and Hungary to take the runners-up spot at the death behind Denmark. Now the highly-gifted but unpredictable Bosnia Herzegovina come calling in the first-leg of the play-offs.
Despite the unavailability of Ronaldo owing to the Real Madrid star’s ankle trouble, Chelsea star Deco says the ‘Lusitanos’ will complete the job.
“We have enough quality to plug the gap – we can’t use his absence as an excuse. We know it won’t be easy but we are confident,” the Chelsea midfielder insisted, while Queiroz said: “I’m 100 percent convinced we’ll be there.”
The former Manchester United assistant manager added that “if we qualify, Portugal will definitely be firm contenders to win South Africa 2010, or at least finish on the podium” with, by that stage, Ronaldo back in tow.
Ireland, who won only once in six play-offs, take on the cream of European football talent, and look to have a mountain to climb if they are to qualify for South Africa.
However, under veteran Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni the team has developed into a solid well-organised outfit capable of frustrating any opposition.
”We are a tough team to be beat and that’s down to our team spirit and attitude,” said Republic centrehalf Richard Dunne.
“There’s no doubt France will be favourites and if they underestimate us, well fine,” he said. “France have all the flair and they’ve got players throughout the team that can skip past players. So if someone gets beaten, someone else has to cover.
“If we all have to come off the pitch crawling because we’re that tired, that’s got to be way.”
But Trapattoni, mindful of his team’s concession of an injury-time equaliser against world champions Italy last month, stressed his team would need to add a deep level of concentration to the mix.
“We need to play with the same attitude, the same mentality, but we also need to have something more than we have done until now,” Trapattoni explained.
The Russians, semi-finalists at Euro 2008, are the overwhelming favourites to reach the finals in South Africa next year, but Hiddink insists that unheralded Slovenia can rise to the occasion.
“We should never underestimate Slovenia,” Hiddink said. “They are a very strong team, both in terms of their results and playing style.
“Slovenia are very disciplined and hard-working with a modern concept of playing. Their strength is their unity, there are no individual stars in their line-up.”
Russia, who finished second in their group four points behind Germany, have met Slovenia on three previous occasions – clinching a win in a friendly while two of their meetings in the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign ended in a draw and a defeat. – Sapa-AFP