The advantages of possessing a top international manager will be showcased as World Cup qualifying comes down to the wire, writes Ryan Mackenzie
It is profoundly ironic that it should be France to once again stand in Ireland’s path to the World Cup finals. It has been four years since Les Bleus broke Irish hearts in Lansdowne Road when a moment of true brilliance by Thierry Henry prompted a crippling 1-0 defeat that all but ended the nation’s hopes of making the trip to Germany where the French eventually lost the final to Italy.
Though, this time Raymond Domenech’s star-studded side will encounter a revitalised Irish team under new manager Giovanni Trapattoni, who remain unbeaten in their current World Cup campaign.
The French have stumbled out of their group as runners up to a Serbian team that few thought would surpass the world’s ninth-ranked side to take the top spot in an otherwise weak group. It would seem inconceivable that a team boasting such superstars as Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Frank Ribéry could lose 3-1 to Austria and struggle to beat a feeble Lithuanian side, but this underachievement has been an unfortunate trait of the French national side for some time.
Despite their incredible success at the turn of the century when they won the World Cup on home soil in 1998 and completed the double by winning Euro 2000, they have consistently failed to perform to their potential, often appearing to survive solely on individual ability. It has been this trend that has placed manager Raymond Domenech under intense pressure and scrutiny from the French public since he took over in 2004.
In complete contrast to the situation in France, the Republic finds itself with a manager who has led a rather ordinary squad of players to indeed surpass expectations. Since becoming manager in February 2008, Trapattoni has rejuvenated what had become a lacklustre and uninspired Irish unit.
For the first time since the 2002 World Cup, the boys in green, while lacking the flair of the French, have demonstrated a real unity of purpose together with a strong work ethic on the pitch. Applying these traits, they have returned to a standard of play that has enabled them to once again compete with some of the world’s topsides, as they showed against the Italians during qualification.
It appears clear that Ireland’s hopes lie with their manager. Man for man, the French undoubtedly trump the Irish in almost every position on the pitch (excusing maybe in goal, where Shay Given stands as one of the world’s finest shot-stoppers). The question remains whether Trapattoni’s superior managerial skills to France’s Domenech can play a significant enough role on the pitch where ultimately the Irish players will have to contend with intense pressure and nerves, and the potentially overwhelming blue wave of some of the worlds finest players.
Fortunately for Irish fans, Trapattoni has a rather impressive managerial pedigree at the top flight, where he has won numerous leagues with some of Europe’s top clubs, including seven Serie A titles and a European Cup with Juventus, not to mention taking his native country Italy to the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.
Ireland’s play-off history is less than flattering, with losses to Spain, Holland, Belgium and Turkey respectively causing European and World Cup competitions to elude. A 2-1 aggregate win over Iran in 2001 still stands alone as our only play-off success.
The two sides meet in Croke Park this coming Saturday, and Ireland will be hoping to capitalise on home advantage before making the trip to Paris and the magnificent Stade de France, an always daunting task. Ultimately, it will come down to Ireland’s ability to cope with the French flair, France’s temperament and mentality over the two legs – as well, as ever, as a rub of the green.