SoccerMatch Preview

‘We’ll need to show fire and ice’: Stephen Kenny urges Ireland to step up against France

‘Do we just suddenly change and just accept a slow death? Definitely not,’ Ireland manager insists

European Championships – Group B: Republic of Ireland v France, Aviva Stadium, 7.45pm (Live on RTÉ2)

France’s arrival in Dublin rekindles an old debate. Reality versus illogical results involving the Republic of Ireland. Stuttgart 1988. Giants stadium 1994. Ibaraki 2002. Fast forward to modern times and Shane Long’s on-the-run strike to sink Germany at the Aviva in 2015 fits into this irrational preview.

None of Irish football’s great days were expected. They came out of les bleus. Sure, everyone presumed a Roy Keane-captained side could put it up to the Netherlands during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup but who – be honest – expected Keane to bifurcate Marc Overmars before terrorising Marc van Bommel and Phillip Cocu into submission? A demented crowd helped that day, immeasurably.

Nobody expects Josh Cullen to inspire such fanaticism. The gap between this Irish group, mostly attached to second tier English clubs, and what Stephen Kenny declared as “the best team in the world over the last eight years” is a chasm.


History no longer feels like an ally. Kenny dusted off the FAI projector recently to show grainy footage from 1981, when Michael Robinson buried the winner, and Liam Brady going all street footballer on the French in 1977.

Eternal Lansdowne days, Michel Platini sent home flummoxed.

“It can matter, you can take inspiration from teams of the past,” said John Egan who grew up hearing songs and stories about his dad’s Kerry galacticos.

This week the French media wanted to discuss Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009, which cost Fifa a cool €5 million, but nobody in Ireland wants to reopen that scab. Anyway, Kylian Mbappé's brace in France’s 4-0 annihilation of the Netherlands last Friday night in Saint-Denis puts his international total at 38 in 67, well on course to catching Henry’s finishing total of 51 and Olivier Giroud’s record of 53 goals.

A hat-trick against Ireland would level him with Platini.

“I’ll get past that mark at some point,” smiled the 24-year-old French captain.

Focus solely on Mbappé at your peril. France under Didier Deschamps rarely miss a beat, across 11 years and three major tournament finals. Astonishingly, the absence of 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba hardly mattered in Qatar as Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot allow Antoine Griezmann to conduct the orchestra.

Kenny’s expected resistance comes in a midfield trio of Jason Knight, Jayson Molumby and Cullen, which pits Real Madrid, Juventus and Atlético Madrid against Derby County, West Bromwich Albion and Burnley.

Watching the humiliation suffered by Ronald Koeman’s redesigned Dutch defence, all hope seems to have forsaken Ireland, even allowing for the adrenaline shot delivered by the progress of 18-year-old striker Evan Ferguson.

Ireland would be forgiven for setting up with five defenders and two holding midfielders as Chiedozie Ogbene and Ferguson run to exhaustion. Steal a draw and run for the hills.

“No, absolutely not,” Kenny responded to the idea. “We’ve been working on a way of playing for the last two years. We’re very, very comfortable in possession, as comfortable as any team in Europe now as possession.

“Why would we change now? Why would we take a step back now? This is the time that the team needs to show conviction, when the lights come on in the Aviva and the atmosphere is as electric as it will ever be.

“And France, coming at us, do we just suddenly change and not show courage, and just accept a slow death? Definitely not. We’ll need to show fire and ice.”

Inspirational stuff, even if the “as comfortable in possession” line is questionable, but Kenny’s words about the now injured Callum O’Dowda carry far more weight.

“Callum is the quickest player that we have in that position by some distance,” the Ireland manager noted last week. “We have good players that can counterattack but he’s rapid and we’ll need that against France – we need speed, that’s important.”

Instead, James McClean can win a 98th cap, so at the very least Barcelona right-back Jules Koundé will remember the experience.

“Counter the counterattack,” added Kenny, “that’s what you have to do, that’s the challenge.”

The make-up of defence remains a mystery. Seámus Coleman’s thigh strain almost certainly secures wing back for Matt Doherty – the only Irish man this season with Champions League minutes – but the Everton skipper trained at the weekend and, if fit, should fill the right of three centre halves, alongside Egan and Nathan Collins.

This being France in 2023, the fixture transcends the occasion. Every game involving Mbappé instantly reaches a global audience. “Kill the opponent” Mbappé told his team-mates last Friday before kick-off, “be dangerous from minute one.”

Reportedly, Manchester United are sending scouts to watch Ferguson’s latest dance with Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konaté. France did give the Dutch chances, but that’s the problem; win one skirmish and another breaks out 60 metres down field. Contain them for 10 minutes and they will suck everyone into a false sense of competitiveness before Tchouameni slides a pass in between Egan and Collins, for Mbappé to pounce.

Reality to deliver a resounding French victory.

Republic of Ireland (possible): Bazunu (Southampton); Coleman (Everton), Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Egan (Sheffield United); Doherty (Atlético Madrid), Cullen (Burnley), Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Knight (Derby County), McClean (Wigan Athletic); Ogbene (Rotheram United), Ferguson (Brighton and Hove Albion).

France (possible): Maignan (AC Milan); Kounde (Barcelona), Konate (Liverpool), Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Hernandez (AC Milan); Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Rabiot (Juventus); Coman (Bayern Munich), Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), Mbappé (Paris Saint Germain); Kolo Muani (Eintract Frankfurt).

Referee: Artur Dias (Portugal).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent