Republic of Ireland are insisting that next week's glamour 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ clash against defending champions Italy pales into insignificance compared to Saturday's duel with Bulgaria.
The Irish, who have 10 points from four Group 8 matches, are second to Italy on goal difference while Bulgaria are third, but seven points off the pace. Victory on Saturday would virtually reduce the pool to a two-horse race with a trip to Bari next Wednesday the next item on Ireland's agenda.
"I think the team as a whole is going to have to play better than possibly we have been," said Ireland's Blackburn midfielder Keith Andrews. "We need to go into this game not even thinking about the Italian game. We need to concentrate on getting the three points from this game."
Winger Damian Duff was a late withdrawal from the Ireland squad, while Shay Given and Aiden McGeady are fitness doubts. The news for Bulgaria coach Stanimir Stoilov seems to get worse by the day. Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov this week joined another of Bulgaria's star forwards Martin Petrov on the injured list while Stiliyan Petrov and Zhivko Milanov are doubts.
We have Bulgaria, Italy, and Bulgaria. Three matches for South Africa. It's possible,
Right back Milanov is rated 50-50 because of a knee problem while Aston Villa's attacking midfielder pulled out of squad training with a suspect hamstring. Another English-based forward, Valeri Bojinov, was also confirmed out late this week.
Although the team has not yet been selected, Ireland's assistant manager Marco Tardelli gave a clear indication that both will pair up in the absence of Steven Reid. "Andrews and Whelan played very well against the other teams. They are good players and when we started to play them in the Irish team, they started to also play for their clubs," said Tardelli. "Before that, they were on the bench. Now they play for the club. Their inexperience hasn't been a problem before so yes, I think they are ready."
Although Whelan is the younger of the pairing Andrews has less international experience with just three caps. However, the 28-year-old made it to the Premier League the hard way.
Tardelli, assistant to coach Giovanni Trappatoni, believes Irish qualification could be virtually assured if they can win in Sofia next June. "We have Bulgaria, Italy, and Bulgaria. Three matches for South Africa. It's possible," he said.
Bulgaria have never scored a goal in a qualifier in Dublin but Stoilov has called for a positive approach from his players despite the absence of attacking options. "I did a lot of calculations and I know we can qualify even if we lose in Ireland but this is the worst scenario and I'm not considering such an outcome," Stoinov said.