French players insist they just need to trust in themselves

 

AS THE French squad prepared for their final training session at Clairefontaine yesterday before travelling to Dublin, the unhurried, secluded calm of the vast football academy in the countryside south of Paris couldn’t have made all the talk of cauldrons and warriors sound more incongruous.

The French are expecting a fight. As the golf buggies chugged past and the wind whistled through the trees outside the marquee where more than 100 journalists had intruded on the peace, four players took turns to riff on the same theme. The Irish will bring their team spirit, their tenacity, their fight and their 80,000 hollering fans. The French will bring better players.

The trick will be to hold their nerve and handle the provocation, said defender Eric Abidal. “They’ll be looking out for lapses. They’ll try to nick us in the ankles, but that’s part of football. It will require a lot of self-control on our part.”

Bacary Sagna, Yoann Gourcuff and Sidney Govou talked about the confidence in their team and their trust in themselves, but that self-belief will be accompanied by a good deal of pressure. It can’t help to have your manager booed in public, one of your country’s greatest players (Michel Platini) doubt you and for the press to be ratcheting the pressure up.

When Govou was asked whether the French should be afraid of their Irish opponents, he replied: “Yes and no. It depends what we mean by fear. Pressure, yes, we feel it, but fear, no. It’s still a football match, even if it will be a battle. If that allows us to concentrate better, yes, but if it inhibits us, no.”

Govou wasn’t the only one talking about battles. One headline writer ran “14-18” across the page this week, inviting readers to relinquish all perspective and connect the dates of the two-legged tie with four years of murderous industrial warfare (the first World War is often referred to as “la guerre de 14-18” in France).

Even for journalists – a class for whom every silver lining has a cloud – the desire to dwell on the negative was striking. Every few minutes a player was asked, albeit in a slightly different way, what would happen if France lost.

The manager wasn’t scheduled to appear yesterday, so there was no opportunity to ask him about the report in the day’s Le Parisien, which claimed Domenech had applied to become Ireland manager when Mick McCarthy left the job seven years ago.

According to the report, Domenech contacted the FAI in 2002 after McCarthy (whom the Frenchman had signed as a player while manager of Lyon) stepped down, but ultimately lost out when Brian Kerr was appointed. Domenech took over as manager of the French side in 2004.

Another man on everyone’s mind in the press tent was Richard Dunne, after he identified France’s manager as their vulnerable link earlier in the week. When Abidal was asked about it, his reply didn’t sound like much of an endorsement.

“We haven’t talked about it. It doesn’t matter what they say about the coach. Our coach will not be on the pitch.”

For Bordeaux’s Yoann Gourcuff, whether they win will depend on the team’s ability to impose their game in the face of a more physical Irish approach.

“It’s inevitable (that there will be duels), but as soon as we get the opportunity to play our game, we have to frustrate them, avoid letting them impose their pressing game, keep the ball on the grass and intensify our passing.

“With the quality that we have, we have to play to the maximum, keep the passes going, make them run and unbalance them.”