Republic of Ireland sense a shock in Euro 2016 showdown with France

Updated: June 25, 2016
Martin O'Neill

Euro 2016 hosts France were supposed to have a relatively easy path to glory. Finishing top, as they were widely expected to do, meant a third-place opponent in the round of 16, a second-place opponent in the quarterfinals and no chance of meeting a fellow top seed until the semifinals.

Easy? It doesn’t seem so easy now.

Even without indulging the reckless presumption that top-seeded England, who face Iceland, may now meet Les Bleus in the quarterfinals, the prospect of facing Ireland in Lyon on Sunday afternoon is rather less appealing than it might be. The Irish will be backed by a tremendous travelling support buoyed with confidence after defeating Italy 1-0 on Wednesday to secure qualification. As such, France fans can be forgiven for sensing the scent of banana skin in the air.

Naturally, there has been much talk of 2009 and that controversial playoff match that saw France edge out Ireland for a place in the World Cup, courtesy of a William Gallas goal that was enabled by a clear Thierry Henry handball. In the bitter recriminations that followed, the Irish Football Association’s chief executive, John Delaney, later claimed that FIFA had handed over €5 million to dissuade him from taking legal action. FIFA denied this, claiming that it was a loan for stadium improvements.

But if Robbie Keane, who played in that game, is to be believed, the events of 2009 will not be an issue in the Irish dressing room.

“I will not think about that for one second,” he said after the win over Italy. “How long ago was it now? Seven years? F—ing hell, move on.”

And he’s right. Revisiting the past offers few positives for the Irish. The future may be far more profitable. They could do this. They could actually beat the hosts and go through to the last eight.

This is not because they are an unexpected force in European football, a horse so dark that no one noticed it stalking in the background. They were hammered 3-0 by a Belgium side that was supposed to be on the brink of self-destruction, having been heavily criticised after losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening game. After an encouraging start against a poor Swedish team, Ireland let their lead slip to draw 1-1, and lest we forget, they overcame what was essentially an Italian second string with nothing to play for.

Only 12 of Martin O’Neill’s squad are currently on the books of clubs that will kick off Premier League campaigns in August. Not all of them are first-team regulars, and none are likely to play Champions League football this year. And yet none of that really matters. They can defend. They are organised. They are spirited. And, as you might expect from a group of men who have to explain their failings to Roy Keane after full time, they don’t give up easily. Factor in a support so loud and passionate that it will negate any perceived home advantage and you have all the ingredients for a shock.

We have seen already that France struggle against teams that exercise caution. Romania nearly held them at bay on the opening night and were felled only by a magical Dimitri Payet strike in the dying moments to win 2-1. Albania’s demise was far more cruel. They made several good chances and entered injury time still clutching an incredible 0-0 draw. Once again, France scored just in time. And indeed added another just to twist the knife. It’s hard to read too much into France’s 0-0 draw with Switzerland given that so little was riding on the result and that Didier Deschamps had rested key players, but it certainly wasn’t the kind of scoreline that will set hearts trembling in the Irish dressing room.

France, like so many of the pretournament favourites, have talented individuals who have failed to click as a unit. The same charge can be levelled at Germany, England and Portugal.

What is also interesting is that, in stark contrast to the mood among the Irish, the French people haven’t yet fully taken to their team. The mood in the hosts’ country has been pleasant but a little muted. It feels as though they haven’t invited the rest of Europe to their party as much as they’ve simply hosted one for all of us. While everyone else enjoys themselves, they’re smiling politely and trying not to worry about the washing up.

The noise in the Velodrome for the Albania game, a magnificent, awe-inspiring arena, was initially loud and positive, but tensions soon began to appear and mistakes were met with groans. With so much frustration in such opulent surroundings, it was a little like watching Arsenal at the Emirates, the players beset with performance anxiety.

That could change in Lyon, of course. This is an excellent collection of players. Payet and N’Golo Kante will return to the starting lineup and there will be far more intensity than displayed against Switzerland. But listen carefully to the crowd if the first 20 minutes pass without incident. The longer Ireland hold out, the more that tension will intensify. O’Neill and Keane, both of whom played for title-winning and European Cup-winning sides, will know precisely the sort of pressure that the favourites will be under.

One early goal could make all the difference, but the same was said of the games against Romania and Albania. France need to move up a gear and for the nation to fall behind them. If not, there’s a chance this remarkable Irish story has a few more pages in it yet.