The race to the Fi­nals

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODPASTIMES -

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

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