France justifiably head into their World Cup qualification play-off against the Republic Of Ireland as favourites, especially given that the second of the two legs takes place in Paris at the Stade de France. But if any supporters of ‘Les Bleus’ who believe that qualification against Giovanni Trapattoni’s side is a foregone conclusion are surely mistaken. And they clearly haven’t paid enough attention to the Republic’s qualifying campaign so far.
While Raymond Domenech’s team finished in second place in Group 7 behind Serbia – the 3-1 capitulation against Austria in Vienna back in September of 2008 proved crucial – the Irish didn’t lose a single game in ending up just behind Italy in Group 8. It was Ireland’s propensity for draws rather than wins (they only managed four victories in their 10 group games) that put paid to any hopes of automatic qualification. But they conceded just eight goals, one fewer than France, suggesting that it will be the very finest of margins that will separate these two sides over the two games.
Nobody in France has been very thrilled with the way the French have performed in Group 7. Domenech’s side have never looked particularly at ease in pursuit of a place in the Finals in South Africa and many has been the time when heads have been scratched at the coach’s selections, his substitutions and his tactical formations. Domenech, for his part, seems to have actively enjoyed frustrating the nation along the way, giving deliberately obtuse and provocative interviews after every so-so match, always claming he’s been more than happy with his side’s performance and that his choices have been well-founded.
Despite his lack of popularity Domenech’s position has always seemed unassailable. He did, after all, lead “Les Bleus” to the World Cup Final back in 2006 and the French Football Federation has been solidly behind him all the way. In his defence France did finish their campaign with a flourish, easily beating Faroe Islands 5-0 and then brushing aside Austria at the Stade de France by the same score, 3-1, that they’d lost to them in Vienna.
Interestingly, Domenech did manage to show off France’s strength in depth in the latter game after making nine changes from the team that beat the Faroes in Guingamp four days earlier. True, the play-off place had already been won, but the fact that the coach could leave out players of the calibre of Lassana Diarra, Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra and William Gallas and still draft in the likes of Florent Malouda, Karim Benzema, Alou Diarra and Gael Clichy proves there’s definitely no lack of talent at his disposal.
It’s true that France will be without the talismanic Franck Ribery, who will play no part in the two matches against the Republic owing to a troublesome knee injury. This is undoubtedly a blow to the French, who seem to play with more urgency and more cohesion whenever the Bayern Munich playmaker is on the field. But a fatal blow? That’s not at all certain.
The French will also tell you that history is on their side when it comes to World Cup qualification – especially in the month of November. They made it to the 2006 tournament at the expense of the Republic. But they also made sure of their place for 1978 by beating Bulgaria 3-1 in Paris in November of 1977 when a certain Michel Platini turned on the style. They then secured a significant 2-0 win against the Dutch in November of 1981, leaving the straightforward task of beating Cyprus to assure qualification for Spain in 1982.
And who was in the qualifying group on both occasions? Yes, the Republic Of Ireland. Let’s not forget, however, that it was also in November back in 1993 that France famously lost at home to Bulgaria and failed to qualify for USA 1994, a tournament for which the Irish not only qualified, but then went on to cover themselves in glory.
On paper, though, France should make it to South Africa. Even Irish legend and Trapattoni’s assistant Liam Brady says that “the French have more talent in their ranks than we do.” But as we all know in do-or-die situations it’s not always the most talented team that wins out. And with talk of 40,000 Irish descending on Paris on November 18 the atmosphere promises to be red hot.
Still we’ll leave the last word to French technical director Gerard Houllier, who pointed out that “Ireland are competitive and tricky to play, but we mustn’t overrate them. The French team should be stronger.”