Ireland’s second leg playoff with France in Paris ended in a controversial manner which eventually saw France emerge victors, 2-1 on aggregate. As in Dublin, the game got off to a scrappy start with Ireland looking closest to scoring the first goal. Irish fans really brought their voices with them to Paris and in the opening stages refused to have their chants dampened by the home fans.
Ireland did not let the French players settle on the ball and managed to boss the opening proceedings. Early free kicks and corners allow Ireland to put pressure on the French defence. But quick counter attacks by the usual fluent French side, made Gignac’s runs off the shoulder of the last Irish defender a constant threat.
Both sides were relying on the use of playing long balls from deep inside their own half in the opening stages. Hoping to pounce on any mistake or lapse in concentration. However, Ireland bucked this trend and began to take the game to their French counterparts from the 20 minute mark.
Ireland began running with the ball and using the flanks to test both French full-backs. Good interplay between Kevin Doyle and Damien Duff down the Irish left hand side resulted in a throw in. From the throw, Duff managed to get a cross into the French box with the ball flashing centimetres in front of Liam Lawrence’s head.
As always Glenn Whelen and Keith Andrews were fighting for every ball in midfield. Their good work managed to set up Doyle down the right wing. He passed back to Lawrence who crossed for Keane who nearly gots his head on the ball.
With the game going Ireland’s way, the French crowd became restless and began jeering their team after numerous simple passes in attempts to switch the play went out into touch.
At that time there was a sense that Ireland needed to convert one of these chances and make the French pay for their slow start and punish the French team’s inability to compete in the game. This oppurtunity cropped up from Ireland’s best move of the night.
Kevin Kilbane and Duff exchanged passes on the left wing, with Kilbane’s return pass sending Duff racing past the French defense. Duff gathered the ball and cut it back for Keane who took a touch to then strike past French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Ireland went into the half-time break winning 1-0 thanks to Keane’s goal and started the second half in a very enthusiastic manner. From a free kick on left hand side Lawrence’s cross John O’Shea unmarked at the back post. The defender took a touch and unfortunately lashed his shot over goal from a very acute angle.
Richard Dunne appeared to be stronger than ever as he won every cross and long pass that came into his area throughout the match. He showed his strength and prowess during the countless set plays that the French launched into the Irish penalty area clearing any danger.
Doyle and Keane also showed their strength throughout the game. Countless times, Doyle managed to hold the ball up for his team mates and lay off possession to the oncoming midfielders Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelen.
As the game became a scrappy affair, Ireland had two chances to win the tie in normal time. The first chance fell at the feet off Damien Duff. The left midfielder was put through one on one with Lloris by a perfectly weighted ball from Keane. However, a combination of the onrushing French goalkeeper and a bout of indecisiveness from Duff closed out any potential chance.
The second tie winning chance came from after a wonderful through ball from Lawrence. Keane managed to latch onto e pass and round the goalkeeper, but in doing so he knocked the ball out for a goal kick.
Coming towards the end of normal time, the balance of the game was shifting from side to side. Heroic defending by Paul McShane on the edge of the Irish penalty area blocked down a Gourcuff chance, while Ireland were also lucky that Anelka did not connect properly with a Sagna cross as he glanced a header wide.
Just before the end of 90 minutes, Irish players were showing signs of tiring due to their high tempo game-plan as Doyle pulled up when running for a long pass, which out for a throw-in.
At the the start of extra time, neither side could gain the initiative. Though France soon asserted their dominance on the game and managed to open up the Irish defence on a few occasions.
Irish hearts skipped a beat when Anelka was taken down by Shay Given in the penalty area. The French crowd consequently roared for a penalty. Though, referee Martin Hansson adjudged Anelka to have been fairly challenged.
Like in Dublin after their penalty appeal, France went out seeking justice for what in their eyes was a definite penalty and like in Dublin, they got their goal again. A free kick from inside the French half was controlled by Henry (albeit with his hand) in the Irish box and his cross was tapped home by defender William Gallas.
Irish players and staff protested to the referee that Henry had controlled the ball with his hand prior to crossing for Gallas to score. However, their pleas fell on the deaf ears of the Swedish referee.
As the first half of extra-time ended, Ireland attempted to focus there minds on the task of scoring one more goal to progress to the World Cup. Sadly for them, this game played out with the French having most of the possession and the best guilt edge chance to win the game. Though, from close range Govou managed to shoot over.
The game ended 1-1 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate sending France into the World Cup in South Africa. Thierry Henry was on hand after the match to admit to handling the ball in the build up to the French goal while also deflecting blame from himself.
Henry said “I will be honest, it was a handball. But I’m not the ref. I played it, the ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him”.
Ireland’s World Cup campaign came to a miserable end. They displayed the unity and efficiency that they normally show, and more. Wednesday night’s performance was the best by an Irish team since the 2002 World Cup and maybe even before that.
Yet again in an Ireland France fixture, Henry decides the outcome. Though, I think even he will admit that his influence this time lacked the class and skill of his goal at Landsdowne Road. Disappointed Irish fans can take solace in the fact that France’s path to the finals will be ever smeared with the accusations of Henry’s handball which led the playoff’s vital, winning goal.