Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trappatoni, who celebrates his 70th birthday on St. Patrick’s day, has announced his preliminary squad for the crucial World Cup qualifiers against Bulgaria at Croke Park on March 28 and Italy in Bari on April 1.

 The veteran manager has called 26 players to his initial panel, but will trim it down to 23 for the spring qualifiers, which could have a huge bearing on his team’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa next year.  Trappatoni, who will face his native Italy on April 1, is not looking past the visit of the Bulgarian national team to Croker at the end of March.

 “So far in this group, Bulgaria have drawn all of their three World Cup qualifying matches. I have no doubt they will be invigorated by the appointment of their new manager, Stanimir Stoilov, and they will come to Croke Park looking for a win to kick-start their World Cup qualifying campaign,” said Trappatoni.

 “Bulgaria have a strong tradition of football in their country with many well known players in their squad, so we are under no illusion as to the task that awaits us on March 28. This game represents a real opportunity to open a significant gap at the top of the table in group 8. For the next six months we will be playing away so strong support in this last home game until October will be vital. Every point gained will be valuable in the race to qualify for South Africa.”

 The 26 players are:

Goalkeepers: Shay Given, Dean Kiely, Kieren Westwood

Defenders: Alex Bruce, Damien Delaney, John O'Shea, Kevin Foley, Paul McShane, Richard Dunne, Stephen Kelly, Stephen Finnan, Kevin Kilbane and Darren O'Dea.

 Midfielders: Aiden McGeady, Damien Duff, Darron Gibson, Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Liam Miller, Stephen Hunt and Andy Keogh.

 Forwards: Caleb Folan, Kevin Doyle, Robbie Keane, Shane Long and Noel Hunt.