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Football: Irish belief boosted by a raft of Bulgaria injuries; IRELAND v BULGARIA WORLD CUP QUALIFYING GROUP 8 SKY SPORTS 1 7.45pm.

Byline: By Steve Davies

THE rugby boys have done their bit to make a nation proud - now it's the turn of adopted son of Ireland Giovanni Trapattoni and his men to attempt to cap what could be a stunning week.

It's Bulgaria at Croke Park today and Italy in Bari on Wednesday, two matches that will have a defining part to play in the Republic's bid to reach next summer's World Cup.

First up are Bulgaria, possibly minus Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov and whose loss is being lamented by pretty much everyone associated with the Slav outfit.

Definitely missing are Manchester City winger Martin Petrov, Valeri Bojinov and key defender Alexander Tunchev.

There are Bulgarian well-wishers who like to think that with the moody Berbatov, their one superstar, out of the side, a new team spirit will emerge under Stanimir Stoilov, but a rush of money on the Irish this week suggests most people believe his possible absence is a big blow.

Trap won't underestimate them, of course, and nor should punters. This was a team that despite being burdened with three coaches, still fared well in a tough qualifying group for Euro 2008 - their only defeat came in Holland and they took four points off Romania.

And three draws from three matches in this campaign doesn't sound jaw-dropping, but one of those was a 0-0 against Italy, which has to go down as creditable. Their stalemate in Montenegro merely mirrored what Ireland had also achieved in Podgorica.

The fact is, however, that Berbatov and Petrov shared 12 of their country's 18 goals in European Championship qualifying and a failure to beat Georgia away in their last qualifier (plus a 6-1 drubbing by Serbia in a friendly in November) cost coach Plamen Markov his job.

The onus is on new skipper Stilian Petrov to run the show at the heart of a five-man midfield but options up front are so limited for Stoilov, and that helps to explain Bet365's 15-4 about the visitors.

And Ireland, an even-money shot, are hardly notorious under Trapattoni for giving opposing sides chances.

The 70-year-old has instilled a real shape, organisation and self-belief into the ranks and masterminded the arrival onto the international stage of players who seemed no more than competent at Premier League level, such as Keith Andrews, Glenn Whelan, Paul McShane and Stephen Hunt.

Ireland will seek to expose Bulgaria down the flanks, especially as Stoilov is set to deploy three in central midfield, so it's a blow that Damien Duff is injured.

Inevitably the onus is going to be on Robbie Keane to ruffle a defence which Stoilov has reshaped with overseas stars because he has little faith in the Bulgarian domestic league, which only returned from its mid-season break three weeks ago.

The likes of Igor Tomasic and Elin Topuzakov have been hauled back from club duties in Tel Aviv and the international wilderness and they will add much experience to the back line. Indeed a country that had been looking to invest in youth just a few years ago have reneged on that approach and are reliant once again on some rugged old campaigners.

And while Duff's absence is unfortunate, Stephen Hunt and Aidan McGeady possess enough tricks to be able to worry their markers.

Dimitar Rangelov, six-goal top scorer for Bundesliga strugglers Energie Cottbus, is in line to step into Berbatov's shoes.

KEY STAT

Ireland's last ten competitive home matches have produced just 15 goals - five of which came against San Marino

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Giovanni Trapattoni has made Ireland very hard to beat; PROBABLE LINE-UPS
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Mar 28, 2009
Words:598
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