Heartbreak of Henry's hand of God, part II

 

SOCCER/WORLD CUP PLAY-OFF:A HEROIC Irish performance counted for nothing last night at the Stade de France in Paris where the referee’s failure to spot Thierry Henry’s use of his hand when setting up the night’s decisive goal for William Gallas ended the visitors’ hopes of making it to South Africa next summer.

It was, as they might say on the television, shameful stuff from the Barcelona striker whose carefully constructed public image is largely based on a projected sense of fairness and decency but that will be forgotten by the June 11th next year when France rather than Ireland will be limbering up for their first game of the World Cup finals.

Thanks to towering performances by Irish players in almost every area, Giovanni Trapattoni’s men came within a whisker of defeating their hosts by the two- goal margin required during the initial 90 minutes.

Chances missed by Damien Duff and Robbie Keane will come to feature in another chapter in Ireland’s book of historical World Cup woes. Henry, though, is sure to go down as the real villain of the piece.

Had Ireland fought and then faded as they had on Saturday none of it would have mattered. But this time, they were actually the better side, their energetic assault on their hosts paying dividends from the start as they created a steady stream of scoring chances as the French struggled to find any sort of rhythm.

After all the talk of the threat Ireland might pose from set- pieces, it was from a ball won in open play by John O’Shea that the Irish goal came, the Manchester United defender feeding Kevin Kilbane to sent an unmarked Duff beyond the French back four to the line from where he pulled it back low for Keane to slot home from a yard or two outside the six yard box.

Trapattoni’s men must have felt they’d earned their their lead several times over with the way they had taken the game to their opponents but the French will wonder quite how they defended the move so poorly with Bacary Sagna losing Duff entirely while three defenders were stranded as Keane arrived to stroke the ball in.

Even prior to that it had been the Irish who had been the game’s dominant force even if they never quite found their range in or around the danger area.

Liam Lawrence, one of a string of outstanding performers over the course of the night, and Duff both had good chances to pick out one or other of the Irish strikers but neither quite judged the weight of their cross correctly and the locals successfully cleared their lines.

When the visitors got their first corner after 11 minutes, it actually was the French who nearly scored. Duff’s ball from the left sailed over a crowded area to Andre-Pierre Gignac who broke at speed towards the left wing with Lawrence scurrying after him. The Toulouse striker shook off his man and fed Anelka who in turn pushed it between a couple of white shirts for Henry, whose shot was blocked by Whelan’s lunging dive.

The Irish, on the other hand, created a succession of half chances while Duff engineered another one for his captain 25 minutes in.

Keane swiped at it as it bounced in front of him but Hugo Lloris, as he did again and again over the course of the night, dealt with it rather coolly under pressure.

There was, in short, Ireland had the best of the opening period and as the players made their way towards the dressingrooms, the crowd made it clear they were less than pleased. Their boos must have sounded sweet to the tired Irish players.

The home side’s nerves, though, were to be further strained immediately after the break with first O’Shea missing the target from close range, but a tight angle, and then Duff failing to convert when put clean through on Lloris, who saved well but really shouldn’t have had the opportunity.

It was perhaps Ireland’s best spell of the game and they were aided by the succession of sloppy French errors. In midfield, Lassana Diarra never seemed to get a moment to direct his side’s play in the way he had on Saturday. Anelka and Henry were subject to constant attention too, as when the latter broke quickly after Duff’s scoring chance only to have his shot smothered by O’Shea and Given together.

O’Shea limped off shortly afterwards and the balance of the game swung back in the home side’s favour. Just when it might have looked to the Irish supporters, however, that their team might have passed up their best chances, the visitors came agonisingly close to scoring with Lawrence playing a terrific low through ball for Keane, who then pushed the ball fractionally too far past Lloris with the result that he couldn’t quite turn it home.

It was Ireland’s last chance of normal time and a miss, the travelling supporters might well have sensed even then, would rue as the night wore on. Sure enough, Henry stepped up to steal the show for the hosts eight minutes into extra time.

Gallas bundled the ball into the net from a couple of yards and, though they fought valiantly to save themselves, the Irish players were, in due course, bundled out of the World Cup.

IRELAND: Given (Manchester City); O’Shea (Manchester United), St Ledger (Middlesbrough), Dunne (Aston Villa), Kilbane (Hull City); Lawrence (Stoke City), Whelan (Stoke City), Andrews (Blackburn Rovers), Duff (Fulham); Doyle (Wolverhampton), Keane (Tottenham). Subs: Gibson (Manchester United) for Whelan (63 mins), McShane (Hull City) for O’Shea (66 mins), McGeady (Celtic) for Lawrence (107 mins).

FRANCE: Lloris (Lyon); Sagna (Arsenal), Escude (Seville), Gallas (Arsenal), Evra (Manchester United); L Diarra (Real Madrid), A Diarra (Bordeaux); Anelka (Chelsea), Gourcuff (Bordeaux), Henry (Barcelona); Gignac (Toulouse). Subs: Squillaci (Seville) for Escude (9 mins), Govou (Lyon) for Gignac (57 mins), Malouda (Chelsea) for Gourcuff (88 mins)

Referee: M Hansson (Sweden).