The France winger Dimitri Payet skated from right to left and he unloaded his shot only for two blockers to hurl themselves in front of the ball. The rebound fell to another France danger man, Antoine Griezmann, but, again, he was confronted by a wall of white shirts. Another shot; another block.
Martin O’Neill’s team have unquenchable spirit and they have repeatedly refused to be cowed by reputations or the odds. There were those who said Ireland would not reach these finals after the qualification defeat in Scotland and the draw against the same team in Dublin. Many more gave them no chance at home against Germany in October but they would beat the world champions 1-0. And how about the 1-0 win against Italy in Lille last Wednesday, which had propelled them to this last-16 showdown? It was arguably the finest tournament result of their history.
At the interval here against the host nation, against the title favourites, when they held another 1-0 lead, courtesy of Robbie Brady’s in-off-the-post penalty, the home crowd were sufficiently nervous to boo their team. O’Neill might have wondered whether he and his players were about to top the lot but football is an unforgiving sport and when France scented blood in the second half, they executed the kill. They clicked, belatedly, in an attacking sense and it was quite the demonstration of power, particularly from Griezmann.
The match had been framed by the ghost of Thierry Henry’s handball in 2009, during the previous meeting between the countries, which had helped to send France, rather than Ireland, to the World Cup in South Africa. O’Neill, his staff and the players had struck to the line, in public, that the scandal was in no way part of their motivation but there were survivors from that game and competitors such as Shay Given, Robbie Keane and John O’Shea are not the types to shrug, forgive and forget. As an aside, French TV had shown a replay of the handball play-off on Friday night.
Ireland had complained about their measly 4,500 ticket allocation and the fact they had been granted only three clear days to prepare, after their final group tie against Italy, as opposed to France’s six. Did the authorities want France through and Ireland out, again? O’Neill used the sentiment to stoke his players and, make no mistake, Henry’s handball was discussed behind the scenes.
This time there would be no regrets. Ireland left everything on the pitch and, when they slumped to it at full-time, heads in hands, they had been well beaten by the better team.
Ireland could not hold out in the second half and it was a couple of defensive lapses that served to turn the tide. Griezmann was left neglected for the equaliser and, when Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy challenged Olivier Giroud for the same ball and lost, Griezmann was away for the winner. When Keogh lost out in a challenge with Giroud and Griezmann streaked away again, Duffy’s red-card tackle was, effectively, the moment the dream died.
Ireland had entered the lion’s den. There were smatterings of green shirts away from the main block of them but it was hardly Giants Stadium in 1994, when the Irish had staged their famous takeover for the World Cup victory over Italy. The tricolores fluttered. La Marseillaise was belted out.
Didier Deschamps’s lineup was loaded with menace but there were defensive concerns. It was Paul Pogba who had the brain fade at the outset and his was an error that hinted at a failure to control his adrenaline levels.
He gave Shane Long the opportunity to feel the challenge from behind but it was remarkable to see how the panic had gripped inside the France area after Adil Rami’s slip when attempting to deal with a cross. It was remarkable to see how worried France were when Ireland lifted high balls into Daryl Murphy. Defensively, France did not convince.
The water bottles first came on in the 18th minute, at around the same time the Ireland fans bellowed “we’re gonna beat the French”, and one of the greatest questions concerned whether O’Neill’s players could maintain their energy levels. This was the same XI who had started against Italy. It was a baking hot afternoon. Fatigue was a factor during the second-half onslaught.
Ireland restricted France in the first half, they looked slick, at times, on the counter and they caused a few flutters but, after Deschamps brought on Kingsley Coman at half-time and tweaked his formation, France came to show their quality. The final scoreline could have been heavier. Ireland departed with heads held high.
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