If Ireland brought anything at all to the French party in Paris last night it was the weather. It certainly wasn’t anything you could credibly describe as creative or ambitious football.
All of that was played by the hosts, though they still needed some generosity from the visitors to score the two first-half goals that gave them victory and gave their supporters something to sing about, despite torrential rain in the Stade de France.
The programme billed “France/Rep Irlande” as a “match de preparation coupe de monde FIFA Russie 2018”, while being too polite to point out that this, of course, only applied to one of the teams taking to the pitch last night.
For the visitors, the object of the exercise was rather more modest, in keeping with the character of an inexperienced team which contained only four players who started against the French when the two nations last met in the real heat of battle in Lyon at Euro 2016.
Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy, Shane Long, and James McClean were the survivors, this time joined from the off by Jon Walters who, battling injury at the time, had pushed through the pain barrier to come off the bench two years ago.
Cork had three representatives last night — Colin Doyle, Kevin Long, and Alan Browne — with new cap Derrick Williams, Callum O’Dowda and, deployed in midfield from the off this time, Declan Rice completing the 11.
The personnel for the hosts had changed too since Lyon, but hardly to the same extent or for the same reasons. While Martin O’Neill’s team selection reflected the reality of a limited range of options, the choices made by French manager Didiers Deschamps were largely freely made, as he was able to indulge the luxury of resting some of his biggest names — the likes of Antoine Griezmaan, Paul Pogba and N’golo Kante — with two friendlies still to come before Les Bleus head for Russia.
Yet, club names like Barcelona, Juventus, Chelsea, PSG and Manchester City were still represented in a French team which knew this was a big chance to give the manager some late food for thought as he refines his plans for Russia.
For the fans who braved a night of thunder, lightning and sheeting rain, it was an opportunity to say ‘bon chance’ from the capital, the stands in the Stade de France a riot of tricolore and choreographed banners, songs and chants in the run up to kick off.
And, of course, ‘La Marseillaise’ never fails to lift the spirits, especially when, as happened last night, they cut the pre-recorded music and let the people take over to sing the world’s great national anthem.
After a heartfelt tribute to former French favourite Henri Michel, the hosts wasted no time in getting at the Irish, though they had James McClean to thank for allowing himself to be all-to-easily robbed in possession by Djibril Sidibe before Kylian Mbappe curled one just wide of Colin Doyle’s goal.
It wouldn’t be the only time over the course of a long night for Ireland that the livewire PSG man would dip into his box of tricks, much to the delight of the Paris crowd.
Debate about whether Ireland were lining out as 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 quickly became academic as the visitors’ formation reverted to a default 4-5-1 in the face of French monopoly of the ball inside the Irish half. For all that he could do to influence Ireland going forward, Rice might as well have been playing at centre-half, but at least he was still a visible and reassuring presence directing the resistance as the blue shirts zipped the ball about.
Thirteen minutes elapsed before Ireland mounted an effort on the French goal, if Derrick Williams’ booming cross which sailed harmlessly over Steve Mandana’s crossbar could be so described. Still, Colin Doyle remained largely untroubled, as the French struggled to convert possession into chances, disciplined Irish defending — the living-on-the-edge McClean apart — keeping the blue shirts at bay.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 24th minute that Doyle had to make his first big save of the night, keeping out a fierce drive from the overlapping Mendy and, soon after, getting down quickly at his near post to deny Sidibe.
However, as the siege intensified, the keeper was a mere onlooker, as Olivier Giroud’s header, from a Mendy cross, flashed narrowly wide and he then had the woodwork to thank when Nabil Fekir’s shot struck the outside of the post.
French pressure finally told in the 40th minute. Again Doyle did excellently to first keep out Giroud’s header from a Fekir corner, but when the Chelsea man followed up, not even Coleman trying to smother the ball on the line, could prevent him from giving France a deserved lead.
However, just at the point where you found yourself thinking that Doyle was shaping up to be a candidate for Ireland’s man-of-the-match, came what can only be called a Karius moment for the veteran keeper, whose attempt to fist away a Fakir shot went horribly wrong, the ball looping up and over his own head, before bouncing into the unprotected net.
After that late, late first-half collapse, the second half was always going to be a prolonged exercise in damage limitation for Ireland, beginning with Doyle again showing his best shot-stopping skills to defy Giroud from close range. You could see from the effort being expended by the men in white — especially fresh introductions, such as David Meyler and the robust Arter — that their manager had asked them to try to get in the faces of their opponents a bit more.
However, when Deschamps sent Antoine Griezmann into the fray just after the hour mark and O’Neill then turned to Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Burke — a fine player, but League of Ireland, not La Liga — the gulf in class and strength in depth between these two football nations could not have been rendered more graphically.
In a further illustration of the same theme, there was still time for Paul Pogba and Shaun Williams to take their respective bows in the Stade de France, the latter having waited a very long time to earn his first cap and at least making this damp and pretty dismal night for Ireland in Paris one to remember for him.
Indeed, he and Burke both came close to scoring right at the death, before the Bulgarian referee finally blew his whistle before someone drowned on the now sodden turf.
Mandanda, Mendy (Hernandez 62), Umtiti (Kimpembe 62), Rami, Sidiberd 83) (Pav, Matuidi, Nzonzi, Tolisso (Pogba 75), Mbappe (Dembele 75), Giroud, Fekir (Griezmann 62)
Doyle, Coleman, Duffy, Long (Williams 70), Williams (Doherty81), Rice, Browne (Arter 59), O’Dowda (Burke 70), McClean, Walters (Meyler 59), Long (Judge 70)
Georgi Kabakov (Bulgaria)