Republic of Ireland can put the pressure on Italy at the top of their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying group with victory in Bulgaria tomorrow. I Azzurri are currently two points clear but with no qualifier this weekend - they meet Northern Ireland in a friendly in Pisa - Giovanni Trapattoni's side will leapfrog them if they claim a maximum haul in Sofia.
It is a vital period for the Irish as their next game is also on the road, in Cyprus in September. "We've got two difficult games now - Bulgaria and Cyprus away - and we've done very well on our travels so we're confident we'll get something from the match in Sofia and move forward in the group," said assistant coach Liam Brady.
"They're very strong at home and they know they have to beat us to get themselves back in the group, so they're going to be very dangerous. But we've got a very experienced squad of players who have handled themselves very well on their travels.
"We've got everything to gain as well. If we can beat them in their own back yard it puts us in a great position. I think the manager has set out a way he wants the team to play and the players have taken that on board. We've showed a lot of discipline in the way we've played games.
"We've been good at set-pieces, for and against, making sure we don't concede any goals, and we've scored a couple. All those things combined have ensured we got decent results on the road. This is a huge game but we know if we get a result here, the next games are going to be bigger."
Bulgaria are five points adrift of Republic of Ireland but have a game in hand, and a win tomorrow would put them back in the frame for a top-two finish. Their hopes have been hit, however, by a raft of injuries in defensive positions, with Litex Lovech's Mihail Venkov joining Zahari Sirakov and Alexandar Tunchev on the sidelines. Energie Cottbus midfielder Stanislav Angelov is also doubtful with a groin injury.
But Bulgaria coach Stanimir Stoilov does welcome back big-name trio Dimitar Berbatov, Valeri Bojinov and Martin Petrov from injury for a game he expects to be tricky. "We know that Ireland will be searching for a positive result and I expect a very tough encounter," he said.
Cyprus host winless Montenegro in Larnaca in tomorrow's other Group 8 game. Neither side is realistically in contention to qualify for South Africa 2010.