Adrien Rabiot had given Ireland the ball with a slack pass across the edge of the penalty area. The Irish crowd roared – another French mistake to add to a growing pile – and now Josh Cullen would have the chance to set Ireland away on the counter.
As the emotional fire blazed around him, Cullen’s job now was to supply the ice. Stephen Kenny has drilled into his players the importance of being calm and composed in these moments, don’t hurry, don’t panic, stay calm and use the moment. Cullen’s line forward to Evan Ferguson was blocked by Eduardo Camavinga and there was nobody else ahead of the ball. No matter, the Irish midfielder calmly stroked the ball sideways to...
...to the pouncing Benjamin Pavard, who stole the ball before it reached Jason Knight and – naturally – smashed a 25-yard shot in off the underside of the bar with the second touch. Pavard can hit one, as he showed with that famous volley in the 2018 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Ideally you want to avoid giving him the chance to show it.
But Ireland have set opponents up so often now with sloppy sideways passes that it’s starting to look like they work on it in training. Against Armenia in October, it was Conor Hourihane playing the fatal square ball that got cut out for their late equaliser. Against Latvia last Thursday it was Matt Doherty. Now Cullen had produced the costliest self-destruction-ball yet. It feels harsh to single him out for blame for doing what is apparently an ingrained habit of this team. It seemed to be a habit France had noticed, judging by the way Pavard had lurked, seeming to know what Cullen was going to do before he did it.
Considering the moribund state of the side when he took over, maybe it’s natural that Stephen Kenny has focused a lot on the attacking side. On the occasion of his contract extension, he invited journalists into the analysis room at FAI HQ to watch some clips of the team in action. We watched and listened as Kenny talked us through 20-odd clips of goals – all of them by Ireland. The ones that went in at our end – of which there had been a few – he didn’t seem so interested in talking about. OK, we’re here to applaud the new contract, fair enough.
But defensive mistakes are a problem this team can no longer ignore. Ireland had conceded twice in four of their last five matches going into tonight. The bitterly frustrating thing tonight was that until Cullen’s mistake, they had defended so well.
Kenny had switched from 3-5-2 to 3-4-2-1, which in practice was a line of five defenders with a tight little pentagon of midfielders and forwards in front. It was the most defensive set-up Ireland have started with under Kenny. Against the most feared attacker in world football, a change in approach made sense. Did it give France too much respect? Can the fieldmouse have too much respect for the combine harvester? Sometimes it’s you that has to adapt to reality rather than the other way around.
[ Ireland do a job on Kylian Mbappé but come away gutted at one killer mistake ]
The selection of Ogbene at the expense of Michael Obafemi proved a good call. He won the first huge cheer of the night by dispossessing Kylian Mbappé and winning a foul. Ireland’s only attacking outlet was the long ball for Ogbene to battle with Theo Hernandez. As the half went on, Ogbene started to get the better of that battle, and won a free-kick by the corner flag to give Ireland their first chance of an attack after a quarter-hour.
The French were swishing the ball through midfield, with Camavinga their hub, trying to increase the tempo and find a gap. Ireland creaked under the pressure but no significant gaps appeared. The price for that defensive discipline was that it was the 34th minute before Ireland worked a situation where they had both the ball and all their players in the French half in open play.
Ireland came into it in the last 10 minutes of the half, winning a corner from a driving Doherty run, another from Ogbene’s spirited challenge on Rabiot and a free kick after Kolo Muani fouled Molumby, who for the second time in the match leapt to his feet and demanded the fans make more noise. Molumby’s warlike spirit had fired the stadium up at half time. Ireland had France exactly where they wanted them.
And then, five minutes into the second half, that fatal sideways pass.
Adam Idah, perhaps surprisingly, was the first player Kenny called on from the bench, replacing Ferguson: not the crowd’s favourite substitution. Mikey Johnston came on for Jason Knight on 77 – too late to have much impact. Knight had wasted Ireland’s best moment of the second half until then, taking too long to get a shot off at the end of a counter attack.
[ Brave and bristling Ireland have their hearts broken by Pavard’s stunner ]
There was something like the usual late siege, and in the 90th minute a spectacular save by Mike Maignan from Collins’ header. Only three minutes of injury time – most of which France expertly wasted – and the final whistle.
The overriding feeling at the end was frustration, and a kind of bafflement. How can a match of such importance, a game of such tension, how can such a huge team effort go to waste because of such a basic error? And how can we keep doing this to ourselves?
Some Irish players – Seamus Coleman, Nathan Collins – appeared furious at the end. Maybe that anger will be the fuel that drives Ireland through the rest of this group. But whether we are angry, sad, proud or defiant, none of it will matter unless we can quit our doomed love affair with the sideways pass, and start thinking about playing some diagonal ones instead.