Ireland’s wounded stars were still talking up their World Cup chances as they prepared for Wednesday night’s crucial Group Eight qualifier away to Italy.
Kevin Kilbane’s own goal afforded Bulgaria a 1-1 draw in Dublin on Saturday night, a result that could yet cost the Republic dearly.
Richard Dunne had headed the hosts into a first minute lead, but Ireland’s negative tactics saw them concede the midfield battles to former Celtic star Stiliyan Petrov.
The 74th minute equalizer was no more than Bulgaria deserved, and it handed them a crucial lifeline at a time when an Irish win would have removed them from the qualification picture.
Italy are now firm favorites to top the group, having beaten Montenegro 2-0 in Podgorica on Saturday night while Bulgaria, seven points behind second placed Ireland, have a game in hand over Giovanni Trapattoni’s side.
With Ireland facing a daunting trip to Sofia in June, the failure to kill off the Bulgarians in Dublin could yet be costly as goal scorer Dunne acknowledged.
“We started really well and really should have been pushing on,” said the Manchester City defender. “I think for us, we had to keep the seven-point gap on Bulgaria - minimum.
“We are disappointed not to get the points, but we are still in a good position. We have said all along we do not fear Italy, so we feel we can go there on Wednesday and get a result.”
Ireland captain Robbie Keane tried to distance his side from the doubts and the Croke Park boos when he insisted they are happy with their current position in the Group Eight table despite Saturday’s draw.
Keane also revealed that manager Giovanni Trapattoni said as much in the Irish dressing room after the disappointing draw with Bulgaria.
“He was saying, ‘Pick yourselves back up, we didn’t lose.’ We have to look at the overall picture,” claimed Keane. “Obviously, we are disappointed after going a goal ahead in the first minute.
“But we have to look at ourselves in the situation and I think we probably would have taken this at the start of the campaign, the position we are in at the moment and how many points we are ahead of Cyprus and Bulgaria.
“We would have taken that at the start of the campaign. We knew Italy were going to be the favorites. Obviously we want to push them and hopefully get to the top of the table, but I think people are thinking now we are going to get second.”
As for this week’s Italy game said, “As long as you don’t lose, that’s the most important thing. They are the world champions and it is going to be a tough game, but we have got to frustrate them, we have got to keep the ball.”
Winger Stephen Hunt, who won the free kick that led to that early Dunne goal, also claimed Ireland can still qualify.
“The Bulgaria result is a set-back but it is more important that we didn’t lose,” Hunt told setanta.com. “We should have won the game and we didn’t, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.
“It would be nice to get a result against Italy on Wednesday and bounce back in a positive way. It is halfway through the campaign now and we are still unbeaten.
“We will look to go away to Italy and Bulgaria to win those games and if we get anything from those games we will be right back on track.
“We haven’t given up hope for taking the top spot and there is no reason why we should. There is still plenty to play for.”
Meanwhile, Ireland’s lack of midfield guile on Saturday night and the continued absence of Andy Reid, Lee Carsley and Stephen Ireland continues to exasperate many pundits.
RTE analyst Eamon Dunphy turned on manager Trapattoni yet again when he said, “He’s on a salary of 2 million a year, he’s got a magnificent CV, he’s clearly a charismatic man, but I don’t believe that he is doing the work that Capello is doing for England.
“He is not seeing enough of our players. He is not attending enough matches. He’s making mistakes. I thought he would be great for our football. I feel a sort of despair. I really want to see our players at the World Cup.
“Trapattoni hasn’t brought a good defensive attitude. We’re defending in our own half. The way to defend is to keep the ball and to be in your opponent’s half of the field.
“If you want my really honest opinion, I don’t think he cares enough. I don’t think he’s working hard enough. I think he is delegating too much work.
“Management is about management situations. If things go wrong you’ve got to solve problems on the field and off the field.”