The world will be watching the referee as Ireland bid for glory against France

No-one should write Ireland off as no-hopers in Lyon. The bookies might think that but the game is going to be a lot closer than they imagine.
The world will be watching the referee as Ireland bid for glory against France

Ireland have everything to gain and nothing to lose in Lyon.

Just so long as we perform, of course.

If we do that and give France a right scare then, even if we lose the match, the team and the management can come back from these European Championships with their heads held high.

The players have done very well to get out of a very difficult group although the circumstances going into the last game did go in our favour with Italy already through and Antonio Conte having the luxury of making all those changes.

But Ireland still had to be good enough to take advantage, which they most certainly did, meaning that the team has played well in two of the three games so far at these finals.

Now let’s hope we perform again in today's Round of 16 and give the French a real fight.

In my opinion, this team should believe they can not only do that but, more, that they can actually go on to match what Ireland achieved at Italia 90 when they qualified for the quarter- finals of the World Cup.

Indeed, when you reflect, we didn’t actually win a game in Italy so, already in the side’s achievements at this tournament, there have been some real positives to compare with anything any Irish team has done before.

They will be hard-pressed to get the better of this French team, of course, particularly when it comes to keeping their attacking talent at bay.

But there’s no doubt that, quite apart from so much pressure being on them as favourites to beat us and even win the tournament, Didier Deschamps’ team have distinct vulnerabilities, especially at the back.

Patrice Evra had a nightmare in their first game against Romania. He’s nowhere near the player he once was and yet he’s still first choice at left-back for France. So I think we can definitely target him: whether it’s Seamus Coleman on the ground or big guys at the back post. Bacary Sagna is struggling too in many ways: he’s getting on and is not the full-back he used to be either.

With Raphael Varane out, the team’s centre-half partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami is still feeling its way into the tournament, while the ‘keeper, Hugo Lloris, despite a brilliant season at Spurs, is never entirely convincing in the air.

So if we can get into the right kind of areas, we can put crosses in that this French defence is just not going to like — I’ve seen Koscielny first-hand and he can be erratic in those circumstances too.

Certainly, France have real class in the middle of the park. That said, even someone like Paul Pogba is not bullet-proof: we’re not talking Messi or Ronaldo here.

Yes, the likes of N’golo Kante and Dmitri Payet are earning big reputations but they are players to be respected rather than feared. Certainly, we can knock them out of their stride with the way we play.

Honestly, we could be coming up against much harder opposition at this stage of the competition.

I know France are the host nation but I really believe that if we can replicate the kind of performance we put in against Italy — with that same spirit and aggression — then we can rattle this team and, yes, I believe we can even beat them.

No way should anyone think we’re going into this game as no-hopers. The bookies might think that but I reckon the game is going to be a lot closer than they imagine.

The big question for Martin O’Neill is whether or not he should he retain the side that beat the Italians — assuming, of course, that Jon Walters is not fit enough to be in the starting line-up. And on Jon, I think the situation is clear: we’d all want him in the team but only if the player himself believes he’s up to it.

Shane Duffy drew plaudits for his competitive debut in Lille and, after a nervous start, he certainly settled well into the game. But the young man was helped by the Italians not asking too many searching questions of himself and Richard Keogh on the night.

Both players are younger than John O’Shea — and Duffy is probably quicker and more powerful — but John’s vast experience might be what Martin will look to for today’s tougher test. I also suspect John was probably a bit tired after playing the first two games in such quick succession. But, as I said here the other day, only the manager can be the judge of that.

One thing’s for sure: it will be a big call if Martin opts to play Duffy and Keogh again against this outfit, a team which will present a much more potent attacking threat than the Italians — even when the latter are at full strength.

Ireland will be up against the likes of the in-form Payet and Antoine Griezmann, and up against Anthony Martial who, even though he can be inconsistent, has shown at Manchester United that he can go by players very easily.

Then they have the threat of Olivier Giroud in the air. He might not be a world-class striker but he’s still a 15-goal-a-year man in the Premier League.

Keogh and Duffy won’t have played against the calibre of these players before. I wouldn’t locate the Italians they were up against the other night in the same parish as these guys.

The only other change I’d make to the Irish side which started in Lillie is I’d have Wes Hoolahan in my starting line-up and, despite his goal the other night, I’d move Robbie Brady back to left full.

Daryl Murphy would retain his place because, against a French team that’s defensively vulnerable in the air, him and Shane Long can really cause some problems.

And so to the matter of the elephant in the French room. From my own experiences in football, I’ve developed the view referees were always in some way conditioned when it came to big games between Ireland and France.

When I was playing, I was on the wrong end of two weird decisions in two different World Cup qualifiers, for 1978 and again for 1982, in Paris.

As an assistant to Giovanni Trapattoni, I was also sitting on the bench in the Stade de France in 2009 when Thierry Henry handled the ball — a blatant incident that was seen by all the players but, mysteriously, not by the referee or his assistants.

So my eyes will be focused on the referee, Nicola Rizzoli, today. Whether it’s Fifa in the World Cup or Uefa in the Euros, the powers that be will always want the host nation to progress because it keeps the competition boiling up nicely on the ground.

But this referee is going to be under intense worldwide scrutiny because of the events of 2009. It’s a huge deal. Even the French, who still feel uncomfortable about what happened then, acknowledge that. So if the ref gets things badly wrong this afternoon, he and Uefa will come in for some ferocious criticism — and the awareness of that might be enough to cancel out any of the unofficial generosity that traditionally tends to be shown to the host nation.

I’ve already stated I believe the game today will be close — so close, indeed, I wouldn’t be ruling out the chances of it going to extra time and maybe even a penalty shoot-out.

It’s a match which offers a fascinating contrast.

France have the technical ability but I don’t believe they have the character and commitment and aggression that in this Irish dressing room — and all of that should be enough to ensure that, from word go, it’s game on in Lyon today.

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