Robbie Keane has warned world champions Italy the Republic of Ireland are gunning for them as they prepare for a potentially crucial head-to-head in Dublin.
The Italians remain a point clear of the Irish at the top of Group 8 heading into Wednesday night’s clash with third-placed Bulgaria in Turin after both teams enjoyed away victories last night.
Keane’s late strike in Nicosia finally saw off Cyprus, while the Italians won 2-0 in Georgia to set up a showdown at Croke Park when a major blow could be struck either way in the race for qualification for South Africa.
The Tottenham frontman, whose goal at the GSP Stadium was the 40th of his senior international career, was in bullish mood as he considered the prospect of a showdown with manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s native country.
He said: “That’s what all the lads wanted – I think the whole nation wanted that, because anyone in our back yard, we are always confident we can beat anyone.
“We have given ourselves a good stepping stone now. We have a nice break between now and then and we will certainly look forward to those two games.”
Italy have amassed 17 points from their seven games to date, while the Republic have 16 having played one match more, a return which includes a hard-fought point from their trip to Bari in April.
However, Keane readily admits they would have taken that situation heading into their final two games, both at home against Marcello Lippi’s men and Montenegro.
He said: “Yes, I think anyone would have. People expected Italy to win the group anyway, but at this stage now, we want to win the group, there’s no question about that.
“If we get second, so be it, that would be great. But we certainly want to win the group, and there’s no reason why we can’t.
“It depends on Italy and if they drop points. If they drop points on Wednesday, then we have a chance.”
Irish eyes will be fully focused on Turin on Wednesday evening – Trapattoni’s men play a friendly against South Africa in Limerick 24 hours earlier – and opinion may be divided on the best result.
Victory for Italy would make winning the group intensely difficult for Ireland, but would virtually guarantee them the runners-up spot.
A Bulgaria win would blow the race wide open, although that would drag Dimitar Berbatov and company back into striking distance.
Keane said: “It will be a tough game on Wednesday now, Bulgaria against Italy, and that will hopefully open up the group a little bit, you never know.
“But it was important we did our job last night, and full credit to the lads.”
Ireland got off to a dream start when Kevin Doyle blasted them in front with just five minutes gone, but it took a fine save from keeper Shay Given to deny striker Ioannis Okkas an almost instant reply.
Cyprus did get back into the game on the half-hour when Marios Elia levelled with a sweetly struck shot, and with both sides labouring on a difficult pitch, the game looked to be heading for a draw.
However, with just seven minutes remaining, Keane timed his run to meet Damien Duff’s near-post cross to perfection and headed a priceless winner past keeper Sofronis Avgousti.
Keane said: “It was a great cross, but we know Damien can do that, and luckily enough, I was on the end of it.
“Damien was brilliant. He was a great outlet for us because it was warm out there and he kept getting the ball and getting at their players.
“He gave their right-back an awful time.”