France took one giant step towards the World Cup finals in South Africa this evening after they beat Ireland 1-0 at Croke Park in the first leg of the UEFA playoffs. Nicolas Anelka's deflected strike was enough to secure a deserved advantage for France ahead of the return leg in Paris on Wednesday.
It was a game of few clear cut chances for either side, despite France dominating possession throughout the game. Ireland for what it is worth are always going to be technically inferior to the French and had hoped that their hard work and toil would cancel out Les Bleus superiority.
But the French had other things on their mind and matched Ireland in terms of workrate all over the pitch, and when that battle was won, the French began to impose their footballing superiority on a tiring Irish team.
There were plenty of rumors flying around in the build up to the match. France's manager, Raymond Domenech, a much ridiculed figure back home, was seen to have had a huge argument with Thierry Henry in the lobby of their hotel on the afternoon before the match.
And when the French squad were inspecting the surface at Croke Park, a lone Henry sat in the dug out refusing to walk the pitch.
In truth, this was Ireland's best hope of beating the French, but in the end, the stories of disharmony in the French camp were a far cry from the team ethic out on the pitch.
In the early exchanges both sides clattered into each other in trying to make an early statements of intent. There was to be no love lost and no quarter asked for or given as both countries knew that the prize on offer was too huge to shirk a tough tackle.
France, playing their customary 4-2-1-2-1 formation against Giovani Trappatoni's 4-4-2 were always going to have an advantage in moving the ball quickly. Yoann Gourcuff, in central midfield, linked superbly with Anelka, Gignac, and Henry as the French strove to spread the Irish back four.
Gourcuff's positioning was causing Ireland plenty of problems and all too often either Robbie Keane or Kevin Doyle would have to drop into midfield to help the outnumbered duo of Glen Whelan and Keith Andrews who were battling overwhelming forces throughout the match.
And when the Irish forwards did drop deep to help out their midfield it allowed the likes of Sagna and Evra to bomb into midfield to further out number the spirited Irish.
France could have taken the lead in the first 10 minutes only for the German linesman to rule Gignac's effort out for offside, the Toulouse hit-man was sauntering back into action when he latched onto Gourcuff's weighted ball, and Ireland were thankful for the linesman catching the players infringement.
With France beginning to dictate the ebb and flow of the game and with Ireland seemingly happy to let them while looking to launch an all too infrequent counter attack, the game was starting to take on a pattern.
When Shay Given launched a long ball towards the French box. Immediately France looked unsettled, and Lassana Diarra can count himself lucky that the referee did not blow for a penalty when he led with his arm while defending the high ball against Kevin Doyle.
The ball came off Diarra's arm and fell nicely to Robbie Keane but young Lyon 'keeper Lloris pulled off a superb save to deny the Spurs man. The ball then broke free to Liam Lawrence who only had to apply the killer touch with an open goal but a superb saving block by Evra deflected the ball inches wide.
Moments later Keith Andrews found himself in space on the edge of the French box after a clever lay off from Keane but his curled effort sailed well wide of Lloris' goal.
This spurred France into action and they dominated the rest of the half without creating anything of substance. They started the second half very quickly and this good start seemed to knock Ireland completely out of their stride as France began to take over completely.
Les Bleus started to grow in confidence and their one touch passing had Ireland's midfield in sixes and sevens not knowing who to pick up or what to do next.
To all intensive purposes Ireland looked to be playing for a 0-0, and lacked ideas of any sort. And as France realised that the Irish had no ambition they imposed their game upon the men in green.
A goal was coming. It was just a matter of when and where, and if Ireland had the legs to see out the 90 without conceding.
But concentration is the name of the game at international level, and France have such good players that you knew they were going to take advantage of Ireland's lack of imagination, lack of ambition, and pure lack of concentration, sooner rather than later.
In the end the goal came as the cruelest of blows.
Nicolas Anelka picked up a loose ball around 25 yards from the Irish goal, Sean St. Ledger never closed him down, and the Chelsea striker fired home.
The ball took a massive deflection off St. Ledger's back as he tried to block the ball and the flight of the ball changed massively and swung away from Shay Given and in off the post.
The defending for the goal was shambolic.
For a start, Anelka was unchallenged in picking up the loose ball, then he was not closed down, and then St.Ledger turned his back on the ball. All of these are schoolboy errors and to make the three of them in a row in such a crucial match is criminal.
France, in the lead, then hit Ireland on the break, time and time again. But to no avail.
Ireland did manage to push France back in the last 10 minutes and only another brilliant Lloris save denied Ireland a certain equalizer, when he bravely dived at Glen Whelan's feet after Robbie Keane's flick had put him one on one with the 'keeper.
But it was a case of too little too late, and France ran out easy winners.
And now Ireland's hopes of making it to South Africa look slim in the least.
Ireland were close to pulling off a credible 0-0 draw, despite their poor performance. And they needed that kind of result to get the French public on their teams back on Wednesday.
As things transpired, France are now dead certs to make it to South Africa and it will take the kind of performance that Ireland have not produced in over 25 years to see them progress, and they only have themselves to blame.
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