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Wednesday 19 December 2018

Task for Irish boys is to pass tough French test

CHALLENGE: Ireland boss Martin O’Neill will pick an experimental team to face France tonight. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
CHALLENGE: Ireland boss Martin O’Neill will pick an experimental team to face France tonight. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Lambs to the slaughter? Or brave lions who can go into battle in the heat of Paris, against a side rated as potential winners of the World Cup, and come out on the other side?

We will see later on tonight just how Ireland, a rather patched-up Ireland side, fare against a team who will expect to get out of a pretty ordinary group at the World Cup (they are playing Denmark, after all) and make the last four at least.

Friendlies ahead of a major tournament can throw up some surprises. In 2004, Holland welcomed little old Ireland to Amsterdam for a friendly which was meant to be a victory parade ahead of Euro 2004. Fringe players like Graham Barrett, Alan Quinn and Michael Doyle didn't read the script, Ireland won 1-0 and the Dutch celebrations were very, very muted.

Ten years earlier, Jack Charlton's Ireland team expected a pre-USA 94 friendly with the Czech Republic to be a doddle; it was a disaster, a 3-1 loss for Ireland.

Bruising

So France will be expecting big things here in Paris tonight, a handy win over an Ireland side containing names unfamiliar to the French public, and if the French turn on the style, it could be a bruising night.

Yet O'Neill has challenged his men to cope with the burden placed on them and see how players, some of whom have never played in the Premier League in England or in European club football, can cope against players from the elite clubs of Europe's elite leagues.

"This is a big game for us and for a number of the inexperienced players we have in the squad. There is a feeling I think, sometimes, that the French are not always united," O'Neill said.

"Personally, I think they are very strong. France, when they get together, will be very strong in this competition, they had the disappointment of losing the final of the Euros, and overall they have as good a chance as anybody of winning the World Cup.

"With the younger players, this would be as big a game as some of them might have played: France, very strong at home, preparing for the world Cup, with world-class players

"It's a test, a massive test for us and one I am hoping to learn a bit more from when the game is over."

PUTTING IN THE HARD YARDS: Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane takes training at Stade de France in Paris ahead of this evening’s international friendly against France. Photo: SPORTSFILE
PUTTING IN THE HARD YARDS: Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane takes training at Stade de France in Paris ahead of this evening’s international friendly against France. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Should things go badly for Ireland this evening and the side ends up on the wrong side of a heavy defeat, O'Neill can point, justifiably so, to the hand dealt him with the squad he took to Paris.

The Ireland boss must envy the playing pool and resource of talent on offer to his opposite number, Didier Deschamps.

O'Neill can do up a list of the players unavailable to him, for various reasons, for this trip to Paris.

Darren Randolph, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward, Cyrus Christie, John O'Shea, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy, Aiden McGeady, Glenn Whelan, Sean Maguire: put those names into the starting XI for Ireland and you have the makings of a team.

Bar Ward, who has been given time off after a punishing season, the rest are injured and not available.

Problem

The opposite is the problem for Deschamps, trying to cram all of the French talent available into a 23-man squad. He is likely to give a night off to the likes of Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, though they are in the squad.

It's the names who didn't make the cut which stand out: Kingsley Coman, Alexandre Lacazette, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet and Mamadou Sakho, not even in the squad.

So O'Neill, and Ireland fans, will try to ignore that and look for pointers. The Ireland boss said before last night's training session that he was still undecided on personnel for the game as he wasn't sure what formation to try - the three-man defence (aided by wing backs) which began the game away to Turkey in March, or a standard back four.

Colin Doyle's experience should see him get the nod ahead of the uncapped Conor O'Malley and Shane Supple to play in goal, while Seamus Coleman and Shane Duffy will also start.

O'Neill has to work out where best to deploy Declan Rice, as part of a three-strong back line or as a midfielder; maybe he will play a half in each role tonight.

The Irish boss also said that tonight was a chance for someone to come in and put pressure on Stephen Ward for the left back slot, so Matt Doherty or Derrick Williams will hope to get the nod and start.

Midfield is another puzzle. Alan Browne spoke last week of how his club manager's decision to play him in a more advanced role, as a No. 10, had yielded a nine-goal haul in the best season of his career.

Paris would be a chance to try something with Browne, a player who can be suspect defensively (he was exposed for one of the goals conceded in the testimonial in Glasgow) but could be a solution to Ireland's dearth of goals from midfield players.

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