Ireland kick off against France at Croke Park tonight in the first leg of the World Cup play-offs. The game takes place against a backdrop of sometimes bizarre fervour, whipped up by both the Irish media and team over the past week. Richard Dunne started the mind games going by saying Raymond Domenech was a man who only seemed to know 'how to mess up' the talent at his disposal. Former Ireland manager Eoin Hand (who was pipped by les Bleus on goal difference for qualification for the 1982 World Cup) said that if Ireland were saddled with Domenech, they wouldn't have reached the play-offs. (I'm not a big fan of Domenech, though I don't really agree with that - even under the hapless Steven Staunton, second spot in an ordinary group was for long within our grasp). Tony Cascarino weighed in in his Times column and this was later relayed to the entire sporting press in France. Cazza had a successful spell in France in the mid-90s with Marseille and Nancy and the French media have an inordinately high opinion of him, no doubt because he scored 31 goals one year in the gentle confines of Ligue 2.
One wonders why the Irish are ganging up on Domenech like this, as it seems likely to only galvanize a French side whose unity is still in question. But the fact that Liam Brady himself said that Domenech doesn't always know what players to play suggests that such an approach has been officially sanctioned by Trapattoni himself. It's a risky approach to take as it deprives Ireland of their underdog status, which has served us so well in the past. But, as my father has suggested, maybe it's a strategy to build an arrogance with the aim not so much to intimidate the French, as to bolster the self-confidence of the Irish players. That doesn't seem unlikely. For all the poor performances in qualifying, coming through the group undefeated has raised the confidence of a mixed group of players. The occasional lapses in defence and some very poor ball retention in midfield fail to reassure those of us watching on the sidelines but if the team at least attacks the game knowing they are the equal of France (I think they are, more of which later), it can only be a good thing.
The French camp, Domenech included, has been rather reticent; the French coach was mouthy in the run-up to the Lansdowne Road game four years ago but he's a more embattled sort these days and imparts only sparse information to the media. He may also be cognisant of the silly furor he inadvertently sparked in Ireland with his 'England B-team' comments (which he never said but were mistranslated by the Irish media). The Irish press continue to breathe life into a non-existent verbal sparring match, with the Indo blowing up Éric Abidal's comments into something more confrontational than they were in an interview with L'Équipe Thursday. The French are relaxed enough; they will enter the game with a wary respect for the Irish but they do not fear them. Nor should they. The French media have, with a few exceptions, been building up the cauldron-like atmosphere their team can expect in Croke Park. Something that will come as a surprise to Irish football fans, as Croker has yet to seriously intimidate any visiting side. The distance of the pitch from the stands and a largely casual public, with many of them rugby fans twiddling their thumbs in indifference, render the atmosphere muted.
And even if the ambience is going to be more electric tonight, that's not going to unduly worry the French. Vikash Dhorasoo, who played in the 1-0 win at Lansdowne four years ago (and whose anti-climactic World Cup provided the basis for the wonderful documentary Substitute) said this week that the atmosphere, though formidable, is not terribly upsetting compared to Greece or Turkey. He's right about that, and a look at the welcome afforded the Algerian national team in Cairo Thursday makes the 'Croker roar' look like centre court at Wimbledon in comparison. Besides, France went to Serbia in September and outplayed the locals in front of a hostile crowd. And the weather, however miserable it might be, will not bother the French. They are professional footballers and they play outdoors all the time.
So what are our chances? Fairly high, I would say. Because the two teams are evenly matched. Not of course in terms of individual technique - the French are way ahead in that department. But Ireland are blessed with a stronger defence (with the exception of Kevin Kilbane) and a better goalkeeper than anything France have to offer. We are also better in the air and better at set-pieces. There is also a greater sense of self-belief among the Irish, though the French have been displaying a greater cohesion and team spirit of late. Their five qualifiers since August have seen improved performances even if three were against the exceptionally flimsy Faroe Islands and Austria, while draws were scrabbled impressively against Serbia and alarmingly against Romania. Brian Kerr, who observed them at close quarters in the two games as Faroes manager dismisses any talk of disarray in the French ranks. He should be heeded by the Irish, and I imagine he will be. It's hard to gauge their real level of form but if France put in a display like they did when down to ten men against Serbia, then Ireland could be in trouble. On the other hand, if France get shaken and disoriented early on they may be too mentally brittle to mount a meaningful recovery.
Ireland will be hoping to expose France's vulnerability at set-pieces; it's far from the only means of us scoring but that's where the French look dodgy. The French press are relying on Hugo Lloris, the 22-year-old Lyon keeper to command in the box. He is generally good at that and played well recently in the 2-1 win at Anfield but in a physical game he may be suspect. Added to that his positioning leaves a lot to be desired. That he was responsible for three of the five goals conceded in the 5-5 draw against Marseille last Sunday should give us encouragement. France have already been resigned to the loss of Franck Ribéry, the only player they possess who can win a match on his own - as he did twice against Lithuania - but the loss of Jérémie Toulalan deprives them of a defensive robustness in the middle of the park. They will instead field the two Diarras, formidable enough but unlikely to faze Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Instead it is Yoann Gourcuff who is the real danger man though he has not been his usual dazzling self since returning from injury last month. Interestingly Gourcuff and the entire French back-four are on yellow cards so they will have to be very careful not to further deplete the side for Wednesday's match. Ireland, on the other hand have only Andrews and Shay Given of the starters on a yellow.
I expect the Irish back-four to be exceptionally well-drilled for the game and slips will be few and far between. But the worry is that there will always be a slip, especially where Kilbane is concerned. If we concede a goal, even with a victory, the second leg will be very difficult. If we keep a clean sheet I think we will go through. A worrying thing is that we have kept only two clean sheets so far in the qualifiers, and two of those were against Montenegro. It doesn't bode well.
I'm reasonably optimistic, even if I don't like it that Trapattoni is describing this as 'our World Cup final'; it's not, it's a qualifying play-off. We've been at this stage often enough to expect qualification for a major finals every time they come around. We may have limited resources but so do most other countries, even a team like England, for all their rejuvenation under Fabio Capello, have a glaring lack of strength in depth that will hinder any hopes of lifting the World Cup next July. But by ten o'clock Irish time tonight we'll know what prospects Ireland have for the second leg. Best of luck, boys!