Ireland return to the familiar surroundings of the Stade de France this evening, caught between feelings of what might have been and what they hope is to come.
That the great tournament they are missing out on this summer is now just around the corner should be all too audible and visible in the stands of the national stadium, as the Paris crowd get a chance to bid farewell to the Les Bleus before, via stop offs in Nice and Lyon for final warm-up games against Italy and the USA respectively, Didier Deschamps and his men fly out to the World Cup in Russia.
And even then, there will be one final painful reminder for the Irish of a dream that died ingloriously in Dublin last November when, in their final group game — having already played Australia and Peru — the French will go head to head with Denmark on June 26.
A friendly this might be, but no game at this venue can ever be free from the ghosts of Irish football’s past. Here, after all, is the once and forever ‘scene of the crime’, where on that infamous night in 2009, Thierry Henry’s undetected double-handball set up the William Gallas goal which decided the tie and saw Ireland miss out on their last big chance to qualify for the greatest show on earth.
Five years earlier on the same pitch, the boys in green were rueing a missed opportunity of a different kind, John O’Shea left holding his head when he was just inches wide of a decisive goal in a 0-0 draw.
That result was still rightly hailed as a big result on the road at the time but, unhappily, it proved to be a false dawn and, by the end of an unsuccessful campaign, Brian Kerr was gone as manager and another World Cup, this time in Germany in 2006, was taking place without the Irish.
Thankfully, our most recent appearance in the Stade de France created a memory to cherish, Wes Hoolahan’s peach of a goal in the European Championships securing a 1-1 draw with Sweden and setting the Irish up for a run in the tournament which ended only with narrow defeat to tonight’s opponents in the round of 16 in Lyon.
But, as we renew old acquaintance with the French tonight, there’ll be no Wes Hoolahan to work his magic and no John O’Shea either, the latter set to follow the former — and Daryl Murphy — into official retirement when he ends his stellar international career at the Aviva Stadium against the USA next Saturday.
Injury means Robbie Brady, who scored from the penalty spot when Ireland took the lead against the French in Lyon two years ago, also misses out, as do other familiar names, including James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady.
But while Martin O’Neill looks for new faces and the relatively inexperienced to step up, some fundamental things never change, including Ireland’s troubling shyness in front of goal.
For all the praise heaped on the Irish the last time they faced France, a stark statistic from that game was that Robbie Brady’s penalty after just two minutes was their only shot on target in the whole match.
And, even with Daryl Murphy belatedly opening his scoring account and James McClean weighing in with a few crucial goals, the subsequent World Cup campaign was once more defined by Ireland’s lack of a dependable finisher, Shane Long unable to add to the goal he scored away to Moldova in October of 2016.
Unfortunately, injury has robbed Sean Maguire of another chance to impress tonight after he was largely anonymous in the 1-0 defeat in Turkey in March. An assured performance by Declan Rice was the one big plus of that otherwise forgettable affair, especially when the 19-year-old was pushed forward into a midfield role.
And while the manager must also be hoping Jeff Hendrick reclaims the breakthrough form he showed in France two years ago and Harry Arter overcomes a season to forget at club level, tonight also represents another chance for Cork’s Alan Browne to cap an impressive season at Preston with a strong international showing.
But even with experienced heads like Seamus Coleman, James McClean, Jon Walters, and Shane Duffy for Martin O’Neill to call on, this weakened and transitional Irish side will do exceedingly well to come out of the Stade de France with anything to show for their latest meeting with Griezmann, Pogba, Kante and company, especially since you’d imagine the hosts will feel they have a point to prove in the capital after losing 3-2 to Colombia in their last friendly here in March.
Irish party-pooping in Paris looks a decidedly long shot.
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