France have pinpointed Wes Hoolahan as the Ireland player they need to thwart if they’re to prevail in today's Euro 2016 last-16 tie.
The Norwich City playmaker scored Ireland’s first goal of the tournament against Sweden last week and created with other with a sumptuous cross for Robbie Brady in Wednesday’s win over Italy.
Martin O’Neill is likely to restore his link-man to the starting team for the meeting with the hosts and France are wary of the influence he can have on proceedings.
“Hoolahan can make the difference for Ireland,” admitted Guy Stephan, the assistant of Didier Deschamps, yesterday.
“He is only small in size but has a brilliant left foot, as he showed by setting up the goal for Brady against the Italians.
“Ireland have other good players like Daryl Murphy, their big striker, as well as Glenn Whelan, who drops back to collect passes from his defenders.
“Ireland are a very disciplined team that never gives up. They put a lot of enthusiasm and spirit into their game, just like their coach, Martin O’Neill, who was a very dynamic player.
“Although their players don’t operate at the top Premier League level, they still play for good clubs such as Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Southampton.
“They can play a 4-4-2 system or a diamond but don’t apply a typically British style, more about play short passes and building up the play.”
For the French, a brilliant opening half in their final group game at Euro 2016 is unlikely to persuade Deschamps to reshuffle his favourite midfield for the game in Lyon.
France looked at their best in the first half against Switzerland, after two industrious performances, despite the game ending scoreless. For that game Deschamps rested forwards Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet, who both started on the bench, and he made changes in the midfield.
Paul Pogba shifted to the left with Moussa Sissoko taking Blaise Matuidi’s place. Matuidi was on the bench as Yohan Cabaye deputised for N’Golo Kante in front of an unchanged defence.
In this configuration, which put Pogba on his favoured side of the pitch, Les Bleus showed great energy, with Sissoko bringing power and pace on the right flank while the lanky Juventus man appeared freed from his shackles.
Deschamps, however, is no tinkerman and he may not be willing to drop Matuidi, the midfielder he has used most since he took over from Laurent Blanc in 2012, as the competition enters the knockout phase.
Matuidi forms the backbone of Deschamps’s team, alongside keeper and captain Hugo Lloris, centre back Raphael Varane, who was ruled out injured, and Arsenal man Giroud.
Matuidi also has the advantage of being a more useful player against largely defensive sides and Ireland are expected to sit back in Lyon.
The Paris St Germain player, however, looked flat in his first two outings against Romania and Albania, and whether he has recovered his sparkle could be the deciding factor for Deschamps.
He will keep the backline that started against Romania and Albania with Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami in central defence and Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra on the flanks. Koscielny and Rami, however, will have to tread carefully as they would miss a possible quarter-final if they pick up a card.
Up front, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann will assist No 9, Giroud. The Arsenal striker quit Tuesday’s training session because of a groin pain but he was back with his team-mates on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, former French defender William Gallas believes Ireland will be out to avenge the 2009 handball incident today. Gallas was allowed force home the goal in Paris despite his former Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry twice handling the ball on his way to providing the cross.
“Ireland will be out for revenge,” Gallas told L’Equipe. “I am sure that their coach will talk to them about 2009. They have not forgotten.
“I find it regrettable the extent to which Thierry was attacked for the incident. It is even more shameful that the attacks came from French media and pundits.
“The referee didn’t see the handball, that was all. I don’t think there was such a ferocious campaign against Luis Suarez when his handball on the line stopped Ghana from scoring at the 2010 World Cup.”
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: The BallTalk team talk about Ireland’s chances of progressing to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
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