Dublin is the venue for Friday's standout fixture in Group B as Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland, the section's early leaders, bid to underline their credentials against a Russia side seeking to recover lost ground. Should Ireland slip up, Slovakia would finish the night top of the pile with a result in Armenia.
Republic of Ireland v Russia, Dublin
Russia want a response following their 1-0 home defeat by Slovakia, yet coach Dick Advocaat expects a tough night in Dublin where the Irish have lost just one of their last 14 competitive matches. "It would be wrong to call us favourites," he said. "We face a solid team that battled with France in the World Cup play-offs, only losing in extra time." The Dutchman has lost Roman Pavlyuchenko to an ankle problem, with Alan Kasaev and Aleksandr Bukharov coming in. Ireland boss Trapattoni sees Russia's visit and the ensuing trip to Slovakia as acid tests of his team's prospects: "These sides are top seeds in the group and will be looking to take three points from us, but we have prepared well and will not make it easy." He is without injured midfielders Damien Duff and Keith Andrews for both games, yet already has six points in the bank.
Armenia v Slovakia, Yerevan
Vladimír Weiss hopes his Slovakia squad can build on two opening wins, saying: "We need to consolidate our good start." Filip Šebo has replaced injured striker Róbert Vittek, with Weiss giving the understudy his backing. "When it comes to physical condition, he's one of the best in the group," the coach, who has forward Stanislav Šesták available, explained. Armenia, sitting on one point, conceded crucial late goals in their first two matches, but trainer Vardan Minasyan is upbeat ahead of the home tie. "We played well and remain optimistic, but that doesn't mean we'll take it easy. We'll treat every match like a final." Minasyan is pondering a possible debut for 18-year-old FC Banants midfielder Valter Poghosyan.
Andorra v FYROM, Andorra la Vella
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia coach Mirsad Jonuz is shorn of three of his most experienced players – Goran Pandev, Goran Popov and Darko Tasevski – for the journey to Andorra, with the first two also out of Tuesday's game against Russia. "Their absence is a tremendous loss, but we won't let it knock us out of our stride," Jonuz said. FYROM were Andorra's first ever competitive victims – in a FIFA World Cup preliminary six years ago – and the hosts will attempt to upset their visitors again and avoid a 27th straight qualifying defeat.
A preview of the next set of fixtures in Group B on Tuesday – Armenia v Andorra, Slovakia v Republic of Ireland, and FYROM v Russia – will be published at the weekend.
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