This was an interesting experiment conducted in the heat of a Lyon afternoon. Pitch 11 fair-skinned Irish men into a partisan bowl, give them a goal start and then see how long they can hold out.
Not much longer than a half, it turns out. Robbie Brady’s second-minute penalty was overturned by Antoine Griezmann’s quick-fire double around the hour mark.
The Atletico Madrid striker then drew a foul from Shane Duffy that could only be interpreted as stopping a goal-scoring opportunity, meaning Ireland had the tallest of tall orders to contemplate – fighting back against the tournament hosts with only ten men on a muggy afternoon.
One small mercy was that Griezmann did not complete a five-minute hat-trick, his free-kick attempt – Duffy’s despairing challenge was made just outside the box – hitting his own player Olivier Giroud before spinning wide.
But with one body fewer to throw in front of the ball, Ireland were significantly less equipped to deal with the now rampant French, whose energy levels were lifted by two goals and also substitute Kingsley Coman’s half-time introduction. Irish goalkeeper Darren Randolph helped restrict the score to 2-1, saving well from Griezmann at the end.
The fates had seemingly decided the striker would be frustrated in his bid to score the first hat-trick of this tournament.
But Griezmann collected the man-of-the-match award and savoured the love of the crowd after occupying the role of saviour. France now play either England or Iceland in the last eight.
The Irish players, meanwhile, stood and watched in awe as their fans sang Fields of Athenry for them at the end. These were touching moments. Like Northern Ireland, Martin O’Neill’s side had done better than expected and deserve to be celebrated.
But this comeback win for France was also worth saluting. They took control after the interval and were free-flowing and easy on the eye. No longer were they being frustrated by Ireland’s fairly blatant and optimistic attempts to run down the clock. After all, 88 minutes was a long time to hold out after Brady’s opener.
The Irish players were being cat-called by the French fans from early in the first half. Understandably, Ireland sought to disrupt the flow of the game by lingering over set-plays. Jeff Hendrick twice went down after a collision involving Paul Pogba and felt the wrath of the home crowd.
The excellent referee Nicola Rizzoli played four minutes of time added on at the end of the first half to indicate to the furious locals he was on to these tactics, if that is what they were. Even before the convulsions in the stands at the prospect of the hosts going out took hold, this felt epic all right. The battle of the tricolours carries resonance in any case, particularly after l’incident of 2010 – Thierry Henry’s handball.
But there was no act of vengeance perpetrated here in Lyon. There was the hint of one. But sadly for the Irish, around 5,000 of whom were inside the stadium, it remained no more than a suggestion of an upset.
It was a chaotic start, and not just because Ireland took the lead within two minutes. The play leading up to the goal was messy and unstructured. Fertile ground, in other words, from which a supposedly inferior opposition side might be able to ferret something of worth.
Even the kick-off had to be re-taken.
When it was, Ireland launched a long ball into the French half. The next time they were back in their own half, it was to begin the long, arduous job of defending a 1-0 lead. For the goal, Daryl Murphy hooked the ball into the box and Adil Rami failed to clear his lines, allowing Shane Long to pounce.
As he shaped to shoot Paul Pogba made a clumsy challenge from behind, bundling Long over. Those who felt Ireland might benefit from a significant call given the recent history between these teams were quickly proved right.
But unlike six years ago, it was the right decision. Now all Brady had to do was keep his nerve despite knowing that his first touch in the game was such a potentially significant one.
Lloris dived to his right, Brady, scorer of the winner against Italy five days earlier, whipped the ball off the spot low to the keeper’s left. It bashed off the post and in. The perfect penalty, in truth.
“We’re gonna beat the French,” sang the Irish fans.
The hurt inflicted on the French were they speared at the first knockout stage of their own tournament would have been ample compensation for the Henry debacle. Indeed, the FAI might have needed to consider giving Fifa the controversial loan of £5million back had O’Neill’s side held out.
But France overcame their first-half difficulties to secure a deserved victory. Greizmann again underlined his prowess in the air when flicking in Bacary Sagna’s cross after 57 minutes before converting a second when Giroud won an aerial duel with Richard Keogh. Griezmann took the ball in his path and side-footed it past Randolph. Substitute Andre-Pierre Gignac also later hit the bar.
As for Ireland, their tournament peaked around the 85th minute of their penultimate game against Italy. Those scenes alone were worth the hard months and years of qualifying for these finals.
FRANCE: Lloris, Sagna, Rami, Koscielny, Evra, Pogba, Kante (Coman 46), Matuidi, Griezmann, Giroud (Gignac 73), Payet, Coman (Sissoko 90). Subs Not Used: Mandanda, Jallet, Cabaye, Martial, Schneiderlin, Mangala, Digne, Umtiti, Costil.
REP OF IRELAND: Randolph, Coleman, Keogh, Duffy, Ward, Brady, McCarthy (Hoolahan 72), Hendrick, McClean (O’Shea 69), Long, Murphy (Walters 65).
Subs Not Used: Westwood, Clark, Whelan, McGeady, Keane, Christie, Meyler, Quinn, Given.