Be warned: France are not beaten yet

A CAUTIONARY note seems advisable after absorbing the cross-section of views expressed in the sports pages of the Sunday papers — France have conceded nothing ahead of next Saturday’s World Cup qualifying tie at the Stade de France.

You would be excused for thinking Ireland need only put in an appearance to be sure of at least a point if you were to accept much of what was written. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The sense of optimism that is sweeping through the ranks of the commentators is based upon this double premise that the French are vulnerable and that Ireland have the capacity to qualify automatically for the finals in Germany in two years time.

There is an element of truth in both assumptions.

Where I differ from the super-optimists is in the apparent blase nature of their predictions as regards this match.

The latest setback suffered by the French is the withdrawal of David Trezeguet of Juventus, a centre-forward with a better record at international level than Thierry Henry 29 goals in 55 appearances.

Trezeguet is suffering from a dislocated shoulder.

His absence compounds the problems faced by new French manager, Raymond Domenech, who has been forced to start this qualifying tournament with less than half the team that competed in the European championships in Portugal.

Domenech has lost an entire defensive line Thuram, Desailly, Lizarazu, Sagnol and Candela.

He is without the suspended Patrick Vieira, the injured Luis Saha, the retired Zinedine Zidane and Claude Makelele.

The squad of 19 players looks young and inexperienced in the extreme, far less formidable than the group who so disappointed in Portugal.

France still look strong in attacking players Henry, Giuly, Pires, Cisse, Wiltord are all players who would walk into our team.

That statement may be viewed as contentious, but it is one I believe to be true.

That begs the question how good is the Irish team?

It is true to say that any team in any sport is a work in progress.

Team selection is a very personalised thing for a manager, his decisions based upon his personal prejudices, the current form of the players, the strength and nature of the opposition.

There are grounds for believing that Brian Kerr has yet to hit on the Irish team selection he would regard as his strongest.

Injuries to people like Matt Holland and Liam Miller have interfered with his planning for Ireland's two World Cup qualifiers against Cyprus and Switzerland.

But the evidence is that he has moved on from the squad he inherited.

Ian Harte, Mark Kinsella, Mark Kennedy, Phil Babb are superfluous to requirements at this time.

The messages from the two World Cup qualifiers were conflicting, for while Ireland looked impressive in beating a weak Cyprus, they were less than convincing in drawing with Switzerland.

Switzerland had beaten us twice in the European Championship qualifiers, so a draw in Basel represented progress. But the harsh truth was that Switzerland were again better than Ireland and, but for Shay Given's heroics, Ireland would have lost.

The Swiss did exactly as they had done in the Europeans. They clearly studied Ireland closely, targeted a number of key areas to be won and subjected Ireland to lots of pressure.

They were hard, physical and busy in their work, and their game plan was directly borrowed from Ireland.

The promising Andy Reid was one of those targeted by the Swiss and the manner in which he was eclipsed suggested we were expecting too much from him.

Indeed the overall conclusion was that the problem areas in Mick McCarthy's time still cause concern.

It remains to be seen, for instance, whether Ireland are strong enough in central defence and whether Clinton Morrison and Robbie Keane can develop an effective partnership.

Morrison has scored in Ireland's past two games but there has not been a great deal of interplay between the two.

The Swiss were stronger than Ireland in midfield where Roy Keane had an uncomfortable comeback after injury and where Kevin Kilbane contributed his usual heavy workload but misplaced too many passes for his own comfort.

Kerr has much to consider when drawing up his team selection and game plan. And I would not rule out a return to a McCarthy-style team

selection with Graham Kavanagh or Matt Holland in central midfield with Keane, with Steve Finnan on the right of midfield, Kilbane on the left and Damien Duff up front with Robbie Keane.

The enduring truth is that if Ireland are to achieve the results they desire in this tournament they must set out to work harder, to compete more tenaciously and defend more resolutely than their opponents.

When you read one commentator write that John O'Shea in central midfield is "the equivalent of Patrick Vieira" you begin to wonder whether some have lost touch with this reality.

France are not beaten yet. Be warned.

Stephen Elliott has been forced to withdraw from the Republic of Ireland's Under 21 Squad for Friday evening's game against the French in Troyes.

The Sunderland striker has a groin injury. Irish Manager, Don Givens, has called up Gary Mulligan of Wolves to replace Elliott in the Squad.

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