Séamus Coleman and Martin O’Neill have called on Ireland’s new breed to lay down a marker against France tonight.
The Stade de France holds mixed memories for Ireland over the past decade, from the controversial World Cup play-off in 2009 to Wes Hoolahan’s goal against Sweden at Euro 2016, and the likes of Alan Browne and Declan Rice will have their own designs on writing the latest chapter.
Both rookies started last time out in March against Turkey, Rice making his debut and Browne his second appearance. That was considered the starting point of O’Neill’s squad overhaul whereas tonight is an early tester of the depth in personnel available to him.
That Jeff Hendrick withdrew from the squad over the weekend with back trouble and Harry Arter is deemed doubtful means Rice could be shunted from defence into midfield alongside Cork natives Browne and David Meyler.
France, unlike Ireland, are heading to the World Cup, and are yearning to win over a sceptical public still hurting from the team’s failure to beat Portugal in the European finals on home soil two years ago.
Didier Deschamps was swift to point out Martin O’Neill’s side weren’t selected for one of their swansong friendlies as cannon fodder, yet a comprehensive win would gloss over a week dominated by Adrien Rabiot’s public rejection of a place on the manager’s standby list.
“It wasn’t a case of picking Ireland to have fun and win easily,” reasoned the former French captain. “They showed in our meeting at Euro 2016 how tough they can be and that will be the same for this game.”
There was certainly a hue of diplomacy to that statement. From the Ireland team that pushed the French to a slender 2-1 victory at the last 16 stage, only three will likely start tonight.
The Irish are in transitional mode and Roy Keane made much of the contribution required by the senior players in assisting the integration of newcomers. One of those, O’Neill’s captain Coleman, is content to assume that responsibility as long as the graduates deliver on big stages, like tonight.
“It definitely feels like there has been a bit of a change in the squad,” admitted the Everton man, set to play his second international since returning from a broken leg.
“It’s so important for us to show the new lads coming what’s expected of them, not just in putting on that Ireland jersey, but also how they are around the hotel. It’s up to them to step up and show they deserve to be at this level.”
O’Neill, too, is curious to see how components of his ongoing project fare in such demanding circumstances.
Maybe it coincided with the fallout from the playoff defeat to Denmark, when victorious manager Age Hareide used his post-match press conference to thank his former teammate for adopting naïve tactics, but O’Neill dismissed out of hand the Norwegian’s assertion that the French were “nothing special” ahead of their meeting at the finals next month.
“I know the Danish manager but he wasn’t such a great player himself,” said a stony-faced O’Neill. “I think that’s highly dangerous talk. Once the French squad are united, they’ll have every chance of winning the World Cup. This will be the biggest game which some of our younger lads have ever played. France will pose a massive test and the hope is that I’ll have learned a bit more about them after it.”
Specifically, broadening his options at left-back is a priority. Stephen Ward hasn’t been in the squad since the mauling by Denmark in November, albeit rest has been cited, but O’Neill appeared to suggest the Burnley man is no longer first choice.
“Stephen had the left-back spot for the four years since I came in but now it’s up to someone else to grab it,” noted the Derryman.
Matt Doherty, on a high following a Championship-winning season at Wolves, could be thrust into the role that Greg Cunningham, Enda Stevens, and Derrick Williams are also vying for.
Shane Long will probably be afforded another chance to end his barren run at international level, though Shamrock Rovers’ Graham Burke might feature in the attack from the bench given the alternatives diminished through Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan missing out through injury.
FRANCE: S Mandanda; B Mendy, S Umtiti, A Rami, D Sidibe; B Matuidi, S Nzonzi, C Tolisso; K Mbappe, O Giroud, N Fekir.
IRELAND: C Doyle; S Coleman, S Duffy, K Long, M Doherty; D Meyler, D Rice; C O’Dowda, A Browne, J McClean; S Long.
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