Martin O'Neill's men bow out with their heads held high
France 2 Ireland 1
Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30
It could have been the greatest day.
Instead, it provided one of the best ever 45-minute performances from an Irish team. They set a pace which they were unable to sustain and finished with ten men and 10pc battery.
There were moments that planted a false sense of security. Moments where it seemed as though the oldest team in the tournament, a side heavily populated by players who could start next season in England's second tier, was on the verge of shaking the competition to its foundations by knocking out the hosts.
The prime example came in the 56th minute, just after Darren Randolph pushed a Blaise Matuidi shot away for a corner. It stirred the anxious crowd in Parc Olympique Lyonnais, allowing them to find their voice again. They had come early with their small blue, red and white tricolores but they had been given little opportunity to wave them. Ireland had led from the first minute and defended stoutly.
So the French sensed a turning tide and the volume rose. Dimitri Payet's corner was cleared by Shane Long. His return cross was dispatched to safety by Richard Keogh. In the attempted follow-up Antoine Griezmann accidentally deflected the ball back up the pitch and into his half.
The majority of the 56,000 crowd groaned, perhaps wondering if they were about to witness the wrong kind of history.
Within ten minutes, Griezmann had scored twice, Shane Duffy was heading for an early shower and the tie was over. So near, and yet so far.
"We look at the goals we conceded," sighed Martin O'Neill afterwards. "And we think, another six or seven minutes. Another six or seven minutes without conceding and then maybe we could have used that to our advantage if they were getting a bit panicky."
In the end, France could have added a couple more goals as energy drained from Irish legs in the afternoon heat. The final scoreline was a fair reflection of the story, however, with the home bench celebrating like they knew this was a close call. "We really had to dig deep to get through this situation," said Didier Deschamps.
France will have another week to prepare for a quarter final with England or Iceland, just as they had seven days to prepare for this stern examination. It mattered.
"We definitely got the short straw in that aspect," said O'Neill. "It's an incredible amount of time - that one side could have that advantage over another."
The tight turnaround from Wednesday night in Lille did not lead him to tinker with a winning formula. When Stephen Ward was passed fit, O'Neill stuck with the same XI.
They picked up where they left off. During the week, Irish players had spoken about the dramatic progression to the round of 16 as the stuff of dreams.
After 61 seconds, it had graduated to an other worldly experience. France didn't touch the ball after Ireland tipped off. Ward was sharper than the ponderous Griezmann and sent in a cross that allowed Daryl Murphy to cause chaos and Long pick up the scraps in such a way that Paul Pogba illegally halted his path.
Referee Nicola Rizzoli pointed to the spot. Brady grabbed the ball, waited calmly and found his destination off the inside of the post.
It was a stunning start, and so was Ireland's response. France chipped away in search of a leveller and they had opportunities before the break but the siege lacked ammunition. Irish bodies threw themselves in the way. All over the park, there were trojan performances.
James McCarthy did a fine job in front of the back four; Murphy was giving Adil Rami a torrid time up front. Brady and Jeff Hendrick showed composure in their battle with the strength of Pogba. N'Golo Kante, who could be joined at Leicester by Brady this summer, was booked in a disappointing showing.
Ireland were at full tilt, yet there were signs that it was catching up on them. Long was operating at half-pace after a lengthy stoppage and Hendrick was struggling too. He then accrued a yellow for kicking the ball away, his second pointless booking of the tournament. From the early minutes, every water break was greeted enthusiastically.
Half-time was needed for survival, but the lingering frustration is that the white shirts laboured when a really clinical outfit might have nicked a second. Hendrick rushed one opportunity, and Duffy headed another wide from a Brady delivery. Then, after the restart, a James McClean centre was scrambled to safety.
The problem was that Deschamps had realised the error of his team selection and made a switch at the break. He picked Kante alongside Pogba and Matuidi when he could have got by with just two of them.
He brought in the fastest player in the tournament, Kingsley Coman, for Kante, sent him to the right flank and pushed Griezmann inside closer to Olivier Giroud. "Maybe we should have started that way," Deschamps conceded.
With pace, they hit Ireland where it hurt. And still, the frustration for O'Neill is that their route back into the match came from a pair of headers. The stuff that Ireland are supposed to be better at than sides with higher levels of technical ability.
In the passage after Griezmann inadvertently ended one French attack, the Atletico Madrid attacker gathered himself to ghost towards the area as France shifted the ball from left to right.
McCarthy missed him slipping in behind as Bacary Sagna curled over a cross that Keogh might have attacked. The duo watched aghast as Griezmann's bullet header found a way past Darren Randolph.
The second goal was much worse. A routine punt up the park, the kind of pass that Ireland had aimed at Murphy all week, prompted unnecessary panic.
Keogh was contesting with Giroud but Duffy needlessly got dragged across and caught in no-man's land. The Arsenal man's flick paved the way for another Griezmann dagger. 2-1.
Ireland had to take a breath and regroup. They were struggling to catch it, though, and last rites were served when McClean wasted a good opportunity to find Murphy and Les Bleus broke to demonstrate their class.
Giroud was stronger than Keogh and released Griezmann, who was on the verge of completing a hat-trick when Duffy scythed him down and Rizzoli inevitably flashed a red card.
There was no way back. John O'Shea was brought in to steady the ship on what might be his last Irish appearance and fellow thirty-somethings Jon Walters and Wes Hoolahan tried and failed to instigate a revival.
France sent for Andre-Pierre Gignac and he might have registered a hat-trick. Randolph made a series of saves to keep the deficit to the minimum, but Ireland didn't have the legs to create one last chance.
The post-mortem will be kind. This tournament has exposed an absence of real strength in depth that does present fears for the future, with veterans contemplating the next step.
Shay Given and Robbie Keane said nothing about their intentions afterwards, but their actions spoke louder as they waved to the crowd. O'Shea is nearing the end of the road, and Hoolahan has also said he has a decision to make.
As Ireland ran out of puff, O'Neill might have wondered if he should have freshened things up earlier. But it's a stretch to say he had options that would have ensured a different outcome.
"Some of our younger players have come of age here," he said, "And it's up to them to take it further."
They have come a long way in a short time. Hopefully, it's just the end of the beginning.