Forget the supposed problems of French boss
The French are no shrinking violets but, despite their favourites tag, the Republic of Ireland have the character and professionalism to produce a valiant performance, writes BRIAN KERR
IN THE build-up to Saturday’s fixture I have been surprised by the number of articles suggesting a lack of spirit or sense of purpose within the French squad. Raymond Domenech, as usual, is the main focus of these supposed problems.
Having studied all their group games and friendlies up to their recent encounters with the Faroe Islands, I can see little evidence to support such critical comment.
On the contrary, the manner in which the French rescued seemingly lost points and dominated opponents makes it very hard to see past their progression to South Africa next summer. Results and performances may have suggested inconsistency in a group won by Serbia, who were four points clear of France at the finish, but closer scrutiny convinced me that France were the outstanding team in the group.
They have been unlucky at times.
They found it difficult to recover from the loss of five points in the first two away fixtures, when their deficiencies were exposed in Austria’s 3-1 win and the 2-2 draw in Romania. Yet it was the manner in which they extracted a point in Bucharest, along with the point gained in Serbia late in the group, that impressed me most and led me to dismiss any suggestions of a lack of desire.
No, the French still play for each other.
Having gone 2-0 down in the first 17 minutes against Romania, they totally dominated the game thereafter with wonderful, aggressive attacking play and were rewarded with beautiful goals from Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff of Bordeaux, while just failing to grab a winner.
France started disastrously in Belgrade when a misunderstanding between the centre backs and goalkeeper led to a penalty, a red card for Hugo Lloris and a goal after just 13 minutes. Despite losing their goalkeeper, they created numerous chances and the 1-1 draw proved a poor return for such a brilliant display of controlled football. They had 71 per cent of possession.
Their performances in these circumstances displayed courage and passion combined with skill and technique that demands respect. If the morale was truly approaching rock bottom they would not have recovered in these matches.
On the other hand, the fact they scored eight goals in their last two games should be taken lightly, as the gulf in class allowed them to play 4-2-4 against the Faroes and against Austria when the group was already decided.
There are plenty of familiar faces from the 2005 French version that visited Dublin. Patrick Vieira, Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele, Robert Pires (who featured in Paris in 2004) and David Trezeguet are no longer around, but the replacements have proved more than adequate. Lassana Diarra, Jérémy Toulalan, André-Pierre Gignac, Gourcuff and the prodigal Nicolas Anelka can prove just as effective as the previous lot.
The style hasn’t changed much either, although their shape has been altered. There has been much talk about the threat posed by Karim Benzema and the loss of Ribery to injury. The reality is neither were likely starters in Dublin.
Henry to the left, Gignac through the middle and Anelka on the right with Gourcuff – much like Alessandro Pirlo’s role in Croke Park – behind them is Domenech’s best attack. We will see them all on Saturday night.
Gourcuff is a young, tall, well-balanced attacker who finds space easily, has fierce shooting ability and is good in the air.
Another new face, Gignac is a favourite of Domenech, and while he is a strong, traditional-style centre forward, who will work hard and chase down lost causes, in my opinion he and Benezema lack the touch and tight control to be a consistent threat.
However, that will be covered by the combination play and movement of Gourcuff, Henry and Anelka, which will test the organisation and concentration levels of the Irish defending to the very limit.
Behind Gourcuff in central midfield will be Diarra, outstanding for Real Madrid recently, and Toulalan of Lyon, who as a pair direct and control the play while attempting to protect the vulnerable centre-back pairing. They rarely move into advanced positions, with the support to the attacking three-plus-one unit coming from the full backs. Manchester United’s Patrice Evra on the left and Bacary Sagna on the right are like extra wingers when the mood takes them. Hence the French formation has looked almost crazily like a 2-2-6 at times.
And not just against the Faroe Islands mind. This was evident it all games when they were piling on pressure with their passing game.
Domenech’s respect for Ireland, but mainly the prize at stake, should ensure a more conservative approach, as we saw the last time at Lansdowne Road. October 2005 was as cagey a game as I have seen for a long time. Yet, in full flight, French attacking flare could have the Irish defence and midfield reeling at times.
Just as the threat from their attacking unit is profound, it is equally a weakness that should give the Irish hope. The French are almost reckless in their attacking style away from home. The desire of Evra and Sagna to be involved, combined with the reluctance of Anelka and Henry to help out defensively down the flanks, can provide the Republic’s front line opportunities to counter quickly through Lawrence, Duff, McGeady or Hunt – in whatever combination Trap decides upon.
The main French weakness has been at centre back, allied to some recent dodgy goalkeeping. Even in the Faroes the William Gallas-Julien Escude combination lacked decisiveness when under pressure.
I feel Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane will have opportunities to exploit the few defensive lapses, which, along with set-pieces (a consistent French problem), remain Ireland’s best weapons. Ireland’s game plan must deal with the dual threat of Evra, Henry on the left and Sagna, Anelka on the right. Equally, the holding two of Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan must disrupt their midfield triangle.
These are tricky tactical conundrums made tougher by the individual pace and skills of a powerful team. France are also capable of changing shape to 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 as the situation demands with the possible introduction of Florent Malouda, Benzema or Sidney Govou. Two fascinating tactical contests lie ahead, both on and off the pitch, where the work of Trapattoni and Domenech will be forensically examined.
My close inspections of the French recently leave me convinced they are clear favourites, but having worked with so many of the current Irish players, either as youths or in the senior squad (Stephen Hunt and Liam Lawrence the only two excluded), I am certain their character and professionalism will see them produce a valiant performance.
Now all we need is the luck that evaded us the last time we tangled with Les Bleus.