Ireland is buzzword for England and France

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The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland hope to dent the World Cup aspirations of European powerhouses France and England on Wednesday…

 They head up the latest round of 2006 World Cup qualifiers in Europe which has seen just Ukraine qualify so far.

Both the Irish sides have tasted memorable World Cup exploits before with the Republic reaching the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals and Northern Ireland beating hosts Spain – their present assistant coach Gerry Armstrong scoring the goal – in 1982.

However while they have had their moments they have never experienced the thrill of winning football`s most prestigious prize, whereas France took it in 1998 and England in the never-to-be-forgotten 1966 final – though it has become like an albatross round every successive England manager`s neck since.

 The Republic are the likelier of the two sides to pull off a victory as they host the French, who trail in third place in Group Four behind Switzerland and Ireland on goal difference, and have a full squad to pick from.

The French appeared to have regained some of their former class in the 3-0 victory over minnows the Faeroe Islands on Saturday but with Zinedine Zidane and fellow 1998 hero Lilian Thuram adding some much needed calm and experience to the squad the Irish would be well advised not to be over confident of taking at least a point.

However, the Republic`s crafty coach Brian Kerr says he is not worrying about Zidane and company as he aims to try and take the side to their fourth World Cup finals in the last five attempts, although it is the first time he will have been in charge.

"We`ll do our own gig," he said in his trademark Dublinese.

"I can`t say that it (the return of Zidane) doesn`t affect us or doesn`t affect how we plan or how we prepare for the game. [They have] put Zidane into the team – who`s obviously a main player for them – they have rebuilt the team around his style.

"Suddenly, in the last couple of games the system they had been playing, which was quite disciplined with a very clear shape, they`ve now changed.

"But we`ve got to do our own thing and play our own way. Only that will be good enough."

France coach Raymond Domenech acknowledged that the Irish – who have never been beaten in a home World Cup qualifier by the French – represented a completely different challenge to the gallant lads from the Faeroes.

"We will have to step up our game a lot," said Domenech, who succeeded Jacques Santini after Euro 2004 but has yet to win over many of the fans.

"Admittedly we knew we didn`t have to go full out against the Faeroes but nevertheless the Irish will be fresher and are in a good state of morale as well as they having had the better of the 0-0 draw in Paris last year."

Northern Ireland believe they can pull off a shock on the evidence of Saturday`s first competitive win in four years, 2-0 over minnows Azerbaijan.

They also hope to capitalise on another uncertain England performance, their 1-0 victory in Group Six over a severely under-strength Wales being greeted with lukewarm praise.

"The win on Saturday was just the performance and the result we wanted ahead of the England game. We showed a lot discipline," said veteran Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie.

"The pressure is off us and on England. "Nobody gives us a chance. We will just go out and play our normal game. You get freak results in football and this could be one of them."

The other standout match is in Group Three and sees Euro 2004 finalists Portugal go to Moscow to take on Russia – who need to avoid defeat to keep alive their hopes of topping the group.

The Portuguese will qualify as group winners should they defeat Russia and their experienced midfielder Maniche has certainly ensured a fiery affair with his remarks about how much he dislikes playing his club football for Dynamo Moscow after just four months there.

"I am not happy and neither is my family. I don`t like the country, I don`t like the league and I don`t like the weather," said the 27-year-old 2004 Champions League winner with FC Porto.

Should Portugal`s strikeforce shoot as straight as Maniche speaks, then the Russians have plenty to fear.