IT is the question that Giovanni Trapattoni, Marco Tardelli, Shay Given and pretty much every member of the Irish camp has been asked and is related to an outcome which analysts in Paris cannot even bring themselves to contemplate. How can Ireland beat France?
Of the four options available ahead of the play-off draw in Zurich, France were the opposition the management didn't want. Reports at the weekend, derived from accounts of Trap's friends in Italy, revealed that the 70-year-old was "depressed for half a day" when fate -- and the seeding fiasco -- decreed that Les Bleus would stand between this Irish side and South Africa.
He is aware of the quality which the French possess in their ranks but the Irish manager also has great faith in his ability to construct a coherent game plan.
Yesterday, the media were chased away from the training pitch in Malahide to conduct interviews with Marco Tardelli in a separate room so the camera crews couldn't see Trapattoni working with the individuals who may possibly be involved in taking set pieces this weekend, in the fear that any routines might somehow make it onto French screens.
The preparation is meticulous because, realistically, Trapattoni knows there is no margin for error here. If Ireland are to triumph, they will need absolutely everything to go to plan. France do have vulnerabilities, but Ireland must perform to the maximum or else they won't expose them.
1. PLUNDER ON SET PIECES
There's nothing particularly revelatory about this. The evidence of the qualifying campaign proves that Ireland are prolific when it comes to scoring from set pieces, and France struggle to defend them. In fact, the principal reason for their only defeat in qualification -- the 3-1 loss to Austria -- was the concession of two early goals from dangerous deliveries.
Ireland only scored once from play in their four matches with Italy and Bulgaria. Aside from Robbie Keane's late equaliser in Bari, the other four goals in those tight encounters came from prepared routines. France have plenty of athletes in their ranks, but lack height and deploy a recognised full-back, Eric Abidal, in the centre of defence. In the context of recent debates about diving, don't be surprised if Damien Duff or Aiden McGeady are asked to use their experience to win free kicks in important areas. South Africa is the prize. There's plenty of time to go to confession before June.
2. STOP THE FULL-BACKS
Brian Kerr recently observed that the French team sometimes morphed into a 2-2-6 formation with the two centre halves and two holding midfielders doing the defensive work and everybody else concentrated on piling forward. The underlying message is that the French full-backs are focused on getting into dangerous areas.
Certainly, the threat posed by Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna is something which Trapattoni will be conscious of. Evra, in particular, is an extremely effective attacking force who can occasionally leave gaps behind. Fabio Grosso possessed a different kind of threat, but Trapattoni altered his team selection against Italy to include Liam Lawrence as an obstacle to unsettle the World Cup winner.
Considering his greatest dilemma surrounds the choice of his wingers, it's likely he will plump for the pair who are best suited to neutralising Evra and Sagna in addition to giving them defensive headaches.
3. BENEFIT FROM COMPLACENCY
Consider the comments made by a selection of former-French managers in a survey with 'Le Parisien' newspaper yesterday. "Technically and tactically, France is superior," said World Cup winner Aime Jacquet. "It's only mentally that Ireland are in front. But with the second leg in France, the mental and physical impact of the Irish won't have the same resonance."
Or Jacques Santini. "What Ireland do at home, they will not be able to do again in France." Interviewed in 'France Football', ex-player Youri Djorkaeff went that little bit further. "I'd rather play Ireland 1,000 times more than Ukraine who, on a good day, can roll you over. With Ireland there's no surprise and we know exactly what's in store for us."
The pundits may be stressing Ireland's mental and physical strength, but the general tone is dismissive of anything else Trapattoni's side has to offer. Indeed, the lack of knowledge is emphasised by repeated references to Ireland's strength at home. Regular observers of this Irish team would be conscious of the fact that Trapattoni's system is far more effective away from home. Arguably, the most positive 30 minutes of his tenure came in the first half in Sofia. If the French are content to believe that a draw this Saturday puts them firmly in the driving seat, they could be in for a surprise.
4. UNSETTLE THIERRY HENRY
The French captain had a good season for Barcelona last year, but he's not the force of old. His role with Les Bleus is a source of some controversy. Appointed captain by Raymond Domenech, there are still whispers about the strength of their relationship, given they were reported to have openly rowed on the training ground before the September draw with Romania.
What's more, it's understood that Henry does not enjoy the best of relationships with young pretender Karim Benzema either. Indeed, while Domenech's lack of leadership skills have been well documented, the problem would not be so great if there was a strong character on the field to unite the troops, but there are no obvious candidates. Hence, the calls for a Patrick Vieira comeback.
When you throw in the recent injury problems which would suggest his fitness is suspect, then there's every reason for Ireland to hassle the French skipper and hope that he gets into a strop. "We feel we have the stronger personalities," argued Richard Dunne.
5. MAINTAIN COMPOSURE
When all is said and done, however, the reality is that this Irish team has often been its own worst enemy. They laboured for periods against Italy last month but, ultimately, failed to win because they got excited when they took a 2-1 lead three minutes from time. In recent years, they've had the opportunity to claim scalps but stumbled when the door was open.
No matter how knowledgeable Ireland are about the French temperament, they have to be sure of their own. "I have my own problems," said Trapattoni on Tuesday, "I cannot concentrate on France and theirs.
"The little details we have to deal with are the silly mistakes. I saw games last week with great quality of players, like the game in London (Chelsea versus Manchester United) but these matches are decided by small moments. I name the sin, but I will not name the sinner."
The famed Irish mentality which the French speak of is based on heart, on passion, on aggression. Ireland will need all those attributes over the 180 minutes, but it won't be enough. The key is to maintain calm if those around are losing their heads. That's real mental strength.