Giovanni Trapattoni has earmarked Bulgaria as the biggest threat to his team’s World Cup hopes ahead of Saturday night’s Group Eight showdown in Sofia.
Trapattoni made the declaration after a Robbie Keane equalizer helped Ireland to a 1-1 draw with Nigeria in London last Friday night.
Anything other than a defeat in Sofia this weekend will all but guarantee Trap’s team a place in the playoffs next November and kill Bulgaria off as World Cup rivals into the bargain.
“This is their last opportunity to qualify and I am sure this will be the most difficult game in this group,” Trapattoni told Star Sunday.
“The three points on offer in Sofia are very important in this World Cup qualifying, for us and for them. In my opinion, Bulgaria are possibly the strongest team in the group.
“They have many, many good players with technical ability and creativity. They have players in England and with the top clubs in Europe and they know this is their last chance.
“The Nigeria friendly was a good chance for me to look at our mentality ahead of Bulgaria because we cannot take anything for granted out there. I was happy with the performance on Friday.”
Irish goalkeeper Shay Given knows exactly the task his team will face in front of a partisan Sofia crowd next Saturday -- his Manchester City colleagues Martin Petrov and Valeri Bojinov keep reminding him about it.
“It’s a massive game for both countries obviously as the two Bulgarian lads at City have been telling me for months now,” said Given.
“They know how big it is for them, but the most important for us is that we get a result, ideally a victory, but it’s a must not lose game either way.
“Martin and Valeri felt all along that if they can bring us to Bulgaria and beat us there they can qualify but we’re confident we can go there and get a result too.
“We’ve just been to Italy and got a result there so the confidence in the camp is good. We could have won the Nigeria game on Friday night as well so we’re playing well and the confidence is pretty high for next week.
“It will be quite humid, quite warm, but hopefully we’ll be fine.”
Trapattoni was forced to go searching for not one but two goalkeepers after Friday night’s draw with Nigeria after West Brom’s Dean Kiely retired from international football for a second time last week.
Kiely was annoyed when he was told he would not play in the London friendly against the Africans, a warm-up game for this weekend’s clash.
The veteran keeper then left the squad to spend more time with his family according to Irish boss Trapattoni -- before it emerged on Saturday that current number two custodian Kieren Westwood is unavailable for Sofia.
Westwood, who won his first cap as a halftime substitute for Given in the Nigeria game, is getting married next weekend, and Trapattoni confirmed to the Sunday papers that he has known this for over a month.
As a result, Trap’s goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly had to scour Europe’s holiday hotspots looking for two reserve keepers, eventually tracking down Birmingham’s Colin Doyle and Preston’s Wayne Henderson.
Trapattoni, meanwhile, has told the FAI that money is not an issue when it comes to sorting out his future -- but he has stopped short of offering to take a pay cut.
Trapattoni’s Italian lawyer met with FAI officials in Dublin last week, but FAI sources deny their talks concerned a new contract.
The Irish boss again confirmed to Star Sunday in London on Saturday that he wants to stay on in his 2 million euros a year job when his contract expires at the end of the World Cup campaign.
But he is also adamant that he is no rush to sit down and formally open talks with the FAI in these recessionary times.
“Now is not the time to talk about me continuing my service because we have to qualify for the World Cup,” said Trapattoni.
“It is not correct to talk about it yet because I want to finish our current situation.
“I was asked a question last week about my future and I expressed my opinion. If the FAI decide I should stay I would be happy to. If they like what I do, if they me, like my job and the Irish people like me then fine.
“But I cannot impose myself. If I don’t feel wanted then I will go home.”
Trapattoni, well aware that the world is currently in recession despite his status as Ireland’s best paid manager ever, again re-iterated that money is not one of his driving forces.
“Money has never been an issue for me,” said the Italian.
“When I first spoke to the FAI there were two other international teams who wanted me and it was for much more money.
“I made my decision for other reasons. I knew the Ireland players. I knew the country. I knew Liam Brady who told me, ‘We are not rich.’
“I had a feeling for the job and the money was not important because I could have chosen other teams with more money.”