Enormous ask but quarter-finals place not beyond Ireland

Manager faces critical question of whether veterans should be recalled

In a news conference ahead of Ireland's clash with France in Lyon, manager Martin O'Neill and defender Richard Keogh talk about being underdogs, that infamous Henry handball and the small percentage of tickets allocated to Ireland fans. Video:Reuters


If there really is to be some inspiration to be drawn from the time Ireland played France in Paris in 2009 then it should be the team’s performance – not the pain – that night that the players look to.

The visitors played with heart, urgency and skill at the Stade de France and if they do the same in Lyon on Sunday then a place in the quarter-finals may not be beyond them.

Certainly, a performance like the one they turned in against Italy would put it up to their hosts to turn in their best display of the competition so far. Man for man, the simple truth is that Didier Deschamps’s men should be the better team, but they are not without their weaknesses. And, even setting those aside, they have not been at their best over their three group games.

The problem for Martin O’Neill, as his assistant Roy Keane and a few of the players have readily acknowledged, is that to deliver another 90 minutes of the intensity they showed in Lille is an absolutely enormous ask.

We had been waiting an awful long time for the team to deliver a win like the one against Germany and now, it seems, we are hoping for two of those in the space of five days.

Since an unconvincing first half to the qualifying campaign O’Neill, to be fair, has been inspired when it comes to engineering really big victories at the moment they are absolutely required. It will be intriguing to see how he sets up this team to face a France side whose strength in midfield is unquestioned, but whose perceived defensive frailties caused them to be largely written off by their own media in advance of the tournament.

Resting the likes of John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan was largely forced upon him, he says, by their age and the short breaks between games. But, having done so, he now faces the critically important question of whether they should be restored to a side that – Hoolahan’s memorable late showing aside – performed so strongly in their absence.

It is, in truth, hard to see how he could risk removing any of the energy and drive that Ireland displayed against the Italians. If the Poland game, for which he made four outfield changes, that followed the defeat of Germany is anything to go by he might want to leave well enough alone.

True, Antonio Conte’s side did not perform as if the players’ lives depended on a win, but Ireland ensured the Italians found it hard to get themselves into the game. And, for all their positive attributes, it is not clear that the return of at least two of those three would necessarily aid Ireland’s ambition of playing on the front foot.

That said, O’Neill has a problem at left back with Stephen Ward likely to miss the game due to the ankle injury and, assuming Ward does miss out, much might depend on how the manager seeks to solve his absence. The most obvious move is to drop Robbie Brady back as he repeatedly did through qualifying and here, but that too looks a big price to pay after Wednesday.

The alternatives all carry an element of risk about them, though, with O’Shea lacking the attacking drive he once had and Ciaran Clark’s confidence having taken a knock, perhaps, after his two starts in the group games. Before the tournament, O’Neill talked about Séamus Coleman having the potential to switch sides and Cyrus Christie playing at right back but the Derby player has certainly played on the left more than the Donegal man in recent times and so he might more logically be the one to switch sides.

That, though, would be quite a punt from a manager who made a few this week and saw them pretty much all pay off. So too would bringing back Jon Walters after the striker trained yesterday, but it is hard to see Daryl Murphy not starting after the shift he put in Lille.

For their part, the French are expected to revert to the starting line-up Deschamps selected for the opening game when the worries about a somewhat improvised back four seemed to be entirely justified. It is hard to argue, though, with the fact that they have only conceded one goal in three games – a penalty against Romania.

In midfield, they are weighed down with talent while up front they possess strikers who have been blowing hot and cold. But, if they are allowed to turn the heat up here, then Ireland will be in trouble and so Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy may once again have to do more together than it somehow seems reasonable to expect.

The history between the two teams does not provide much cause for encouragement. You have to go back five games and 35 years for an Irish success. Yet, if this Ireland team can subdue their hosts in the way the team did 6½ years ago then they will certainly be in with a fighting chance. Back then, the conspiracy theorists had it that the whole Henry handball thing was part of a plot by the powers that be to get France to the World Cup; it sounded barmy to most of us but hey, even if it was true, the fixers probably wished afterwards that they hadn’t bothered.

This time, the intent is rather more real. This tournament has been structured in such a way as to help the hosts along towards its latter stages.

The way things have worked out, Ireland are now supposed to be the first fall guys, with the appallingly inequitable distribution of tickets only adding insult to the tangible injury of the huge advantage France have had in terms of recovery time since their last game.

No harm to our hosts, but if O’Neill and his men really can pull it off, it would make Ireland’s victory tomorrow that bit sweeter.

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