Ken Early: French appear to be less than the sum of their parts
There are still bugs in the French system which is enough to give Ireland some hope
Ireland’s victory over Italy looked a bit like an old-school European Cup game from the early 1980s, with the strong men from the windswept offshore island physically dominating the diffident Mediterraneans and eventually scoring through a typically continental goalkeeping error.
Will the same approach work against France, who enjoy home advantage, squad advantage, skill advantage, extra-days-rest advantage and probably referee advantage too?
The refereeing in the Italy game was memorable from an Irish point of view mainly for the fact that Ireland weren’t given a penalty for that blatant shove on James McClean as he was winding up to take a shot.
Italy committed several other penalty-area fouls but they were of the type that occur off the ball at set pieces and seldom result in a penalty. An obvious foul on the man in possession usually does result in a penalty, and if Robbie Brady hadn’t scored the decision would have been guaranteed a prominent position in Irish football’s pantheon of injustice. But looking back after a couple of days, it’s clear that the refereeing wasn’t all bad for Ireland. There were several heavy fouls by Irish players in the first few minutes that he decided not to punish with a yellow card. Ireland succeeded in their aim of rattling the Italian players without then having to tread carefully for the rest of the match. With this sort of refereeing, a team like Ireland put out on Wednesday can be formidable.
Can we really expect it to be the same before a partisan home crowd in Lyon on Sunday? Probably not. Ireland have to try to play with the same intensity but even more discipline than they showed against the Italians.
The aim has to be to stay in the game and hope that the longer it goes on, the greater the chance of cracks opening up in France’s team spirit.
When Martin O’Neill talks about France he sounds a lot like he did when he talked about Belgium. He’s always praising their “individual talent”, with the emphasis on individual. France have one of the strongest squads in the tournament, but not yet one of the most impressive teams.
It seems likely that Didier Deschamps will name the same team that kicked off the tournament against Romania. The big star in the team is Paul Pogba, who is a divisive figure despite his obvious brilliance.
The French sports media have been sceptical of Pogba’s performances so far, so that when he helped to create France’s second goal against Albania in their second group game, he celebrated by pumping his fist at his tormentors in the press box. Naturally this has just amplified the scorn and Pogba is now playing to prove a point in every minute of every game.
And so France’s most talented player risks becoming an isolated figure.
He is a footballer of spectacular athletic and technical gifts, who can score from anywhere within 40 yards of the goal, but in terms of tactical awareness and team play, he’s still quite ordinary.
When you have as much ability as Pogba it’s tempting to try to do something decisive every time you get the ball, when sometimes the right move is just to keep things going. If you have the talent to be the match winner so frequently you end up thinking you have to be the match winner all the time, even though the most reliable match winner is a unified team.
While Pogba has struggled to show his best form, Dmitry Payet has stepped up to provide France’s best moments.
His superb goals against Romania and Albania have given him the national recognition he feels has been wrongly denied him for so long. Produce another couple of moments like this and he could be approaching the legendary French tournament performances – Zidane in Euro 2000 or Platini in Euro 84. But France remain a team of special moments, unlike the really big teams of recent years, Spain and Germany, who have been the kind that dominate the game from start to finish.
The French midfield of Pogba, Kante and Matuidi will give the Irish central midfield one of the toughest games of their lives, but they haven’t quite managed to become a unit that is more than the sum of its parts. There are still bugs in the French system, which is enough to give Ireland a bit of hope in a game where everything seems to be against them.