Euro 2024 Qualification, Group B: Republic of Ireland 0 France 1 (Pavard 50)
Ah there goes that dream. Brave to a fault, organised and bristling with controlled aggression, the Republic of Ireland rattled into this platinum generation of French football, only to let them off the hook.
Benjamin Pavard banged in the game’s only goal on 50 minutes and it was a sickener. Josh Cullen may be the glue that can hold any midfield together, but he was betrayed by poor peripheral vision, coughing up possession on the edge of the Irish box when pressed by Eduardo Camavinga.
Pavard finished with aplomb. Another long-range puncture wound, another nearly moment for Stephen Kenny’s Ireland.
In the 90th minute, with Ireland in complete control, AC Milan’s Mike Maignan made a sensational save to deny the towering Nathan Collins from a Cullen corner. It would have brought the house down. All 50,219 of them.
So much went to plan, so many Irish men played so far above themselves, only for a sloppy error to gift France the spoils.
“Please be in your seats for 19:35,” tweeted Ireland Football at 5pm and 2,900 French visitors obeyed, having marched on Lansdowne Road from Café En Seine. Seriously, missives were sent from their palatial embassy on Ailesbury road to meet at the Dawson Street watering hole. Grand evening for a stroll into leafy south Dublin. Warm the blood. Not an ambush in sight.
France manager Didier Deschamps made three changes from Friday’s 4-0 scolding of the Netherlands and it arguably strengthened their hand. Certainly, Pavard relieving Jules Koundé paid out handsomely; Camavinga for Aurélien Tchouameni, both Real Madrid midfielders, levelled out and record goal scorer Olivier Giroud (53) replacing Kinglsey Coman, saw Randal Kolo Muani repositioned on the right of a lethal three-man, arrow offence.
Lethal, yet contained on the night.
Kenny made six changes from the 3-2 victory over Latvia: Gavin Bazunu was excellent on return to goal while Chiedozie Ogbene and skipper Séamus Coleman offered an encouraging mesh of experience and athleticism.
Anything felt possible as Freed From Desire blared out 10 minutes before kick-off. The penny may never drop. On these rare nights, the Aviva’s south-stand need never be chained to a 1997 dance ditty. Olé Olé rolled down from the nose bleeds as Kylian Mbappé and Coleman smacked palms in the tunnel, two inspirational captains born 10 years apart, both winning a 68th cap in this Dublin cauldron.
It took 25 minutes before Mbappé's Olympic pace tested Coleman’s dodgy hamstrings. The son of Donegal conceded a corner to the Parisian, and nothing more.
The Fields of Athenry echoed around the stadium after just three minutes but the contest needed a leveller. A moment to make the Champions League XI forget that Jason Knight plays for Derby County in the third tier of English football.
Battleground number one: Evan Ferguson thundering down the channel, backing into Dayot Upamecano before shipping a cross into an empty French box. The 18-year-old was alive, running to a standstill, until relieved by Adam Idah on 65 minutes.
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France took the early Irish jabs before finding Mbappé, repeatedly, and never mind the first ball into feet, when Ogbene and Nathan Collins would swarm behind Coleman, it’s the second ball that gets teams. He never tracks back for a reason. He finished at centre forward, still eyeing up the 34-year-old Everton right back.
Ireland survived the first French swipe at their jugular. Only seven minutes had passed when Upamecano’s diagonal ball had Randal Kolo Muani almost rounding Gavin Bazunu but the Southampton goalkeeper forced the Eintract Frankfurt man to a backheel for Giroud. Collins arrived, cleaned up and cleared out.
Cullen was in familiar territory, having recently suffered a 6-0 FA Cup final beating as Burnley captain away to Manchester City and he was lucky to avoid a yellow card for refusing to let Kolo Muani breeze past him.
Bizarrely, Ireland were most fragile when Coleman sprayed a free kick into the French box. “We must counter the counter,” warned Kenny beforehand. Antoine Griezmann’s flawless control and 40 metre out-ball suddenly had Adrien Rabiot haring towards the end line with Mbappé lurking near the penalty spot. Jayson Molumby’s slide tackle and fist pumping celebration momentarily transformed the east lower into Semple Stadium on a Munster hurling championship Sunday.
Artur Dias was enjoying the physicality but even this unfussy referee showed Pavard a yellow card for upending Knight. Theo Hernández revealed some French sloppiness, letting two passes roll out of play but crazily he was allowed rake Ogbene repeatedly without caution.
France continued to mesmerise but so did Matt Doherty, shrugging off Kolo Muani on a run down the left that earned a corner, which Cullen wasted.
More chances came but rapid French breakouts were a constant menace. Still, Ireland had a purple patch before half-time. Molumby hustled a free out of Dias, despite blatantly blocking Kolo Muani and when Ogbene won another corner, having elbowed the ball off Rabiot, the crowd burst into song, almost serenading the Portuguese official.
As everyone went for a lie down, Mbappé offered Dias some cold advice while Coleman, waiting patiently, made the official giggle.
All epic tales have a heroes and villains. Pavard and Cullen. The three Irish centre halves – Collins, Dara O’Shea and John Egan – repelling multitudes of French assaults.
[ Ireland 0 France 1: How the Irish players rated in spirited performance at the Aviva ]
Of course James McClean arrived, all 98 caps of him, sparking wild and inaccurate splashes of Irish attacks as Mbappé waited patiently up the other end to counter the counter.
It ended in misery; brave, organised, bristling misery.
Republic of Ireland: Bazunu (Southampton); Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Egan (Sheffield United), O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion); Coleman (Everton), Cullen (Burnley), Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Doherty (Atlético Madrid); Knight (Derby County), Ogbene (Rotheram United); Ferguson (Brighton and Hove Albion). Subs: Idah (Norwich City) for Ferguson (65), McClean (Wigan Athletic) for Doherty (77), Browne (Preston North End) for O’Shea, Johnston (Vitória) for Knight (both 78), Obafemi (Burnley) for Molumby (86).
France: Maignan (AC Milan); Pavard (Bayern Munich), Konaté (Liverpool), Upamecano (Bayern Munich), T Hernandez (AC Milan); Camavinga (Real Madrid), Rabiot (Juventus); Griezmann (Atlético Madrid); Kolo Muani (Eintract Frankfurt), Giroud (AC Milan), Mbappé (Paris Saint Germain). Subs: Diaby (Bayern Leverkusen) for Groud (65), Kounde (Barcelona) for Pavard, Tchouameni (Real Madrid) for Rabiot (both 81), M Thuram (Borussia Monchengladbach) for Kolo Muani (90).
Referee: Artur Dias (Portugal).