For Shay Given and his Republic of Ireland team-mates, it's a case of all to play for over the coming week as their push for a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa™ reaches a climax. On Saturday, the Manchester City goalkeeper will earn his 99th cap in a crucial qualifier with Italy at Croke Park, before the Irish complete their Group 8 campaign by welcoming Montenegro to the same Dublin venue.
Republic of Ireland are second in the section on 16 points, four behind Italy and five ahead of Bulgaria. However, they require victory over Gli Azzurri to keep alive hopes of direct qualification and avoid the lottery of the play-offs.
Failure is something that Given is not contemplating in front of a home crowd. "We would love to top the group," he told FIFA.com. "We have achieved tremendous results throughout the campaign, and we are now really looking forward to playing the world champions. I am confident that we will cause the Italians a lot of problems with the atmosphere generated by the Irish fans."
Given, one of Ireland's Korea/Japan 2002 veterans, has recent experience of the Italian's fortitude after the two sides drew 1-1 in Bari in April, despite the hosts playing with ten men for virtually the entire match. "The Italians have a habit of grinding out results in this campaign," said the 33-year-old. "My whole family will be in Dublin for the game against Italy and my two young children, who have never watched an international will also be there, so that makes it even more special."
An Italian twist
A sub-plot to Saturday's match is that Italy's downfall will be plotted by former Azzurri coach Giovanni Trapattoni, who has guided Republic of Ireland throughout the current campaign. Far from being a drawback for his side, Given believes having the 70-year-old is a major plus for the Irish. "Even though he is Italian deep down, he wants to do Ireland and the Irish people proud. I think that will work to our advantage and he knows the Italian manager, the players and the system they will play very well."
Trapattoni, who won just about every trophy on offer during two stints in charge of Juventus, coached Italy between 2000 and 2004. He told FIFA.com that since taking over as Ireland coach, he has been asked many times what it means to him to face his home country.
"Of course, it is an emotional occasion for Marco (Tardelli, the assistant coach) and I, but as we have both said before, nothing would mean more to us than to bring Ireland to South Africa and that means playing for all three points against every team we meet, whether it is Italy or any other country that stands in our way.
"The contest against Italy will be open and intense. It's an important game psychologically for both teams. Italy will want to show what they can do because they are the world champions and they will be eager to gain automatic qualification. This squad has talent, commitment, belief and huge potential."
Given and stalwart defender Kevin Kilbane are just two matches short of a century of appearances, a feat they will achieve if they play against both Italy and Montenegro. The pair would then be just two games shy of Steve Staunton's all-time record of 102 caps.
For Given, the thought of representing his country 100 times is something that takes him back to his childhood. "It will be a very special game for me," he commented. "Growing up in Ireland my dad and I went to matches. I remember getting autographs of players and at that stage, I certainly never dreamt of playing for my country.
"To now get to this stage where I am approaching 100 caps is a very proud moment for me," he said, adding that he hoped that Kilbane would also play in his 100th international at the same time. "To reach 100 at any level is a massive achievement."
It would be an even greater achievement if Given can do so while helping Republic of Ireland reach South Africa 2010.