Five France players Ireland must stop to keep Euros dream alive
As the Irish masses basked in the euphoria of an unforgettable balmy night in Lille, it’s all too likely that Martin O’Neill temporarily tempered his own jubilation and considered what will be required to undo France on Sunday afternoon.
That’s the thing about epic, improbable victories at major tournaments, if not achieved at the very business end of proceedings, these great efforts cannot be fully revelled in until all is said and done.
Quite simply, there’s just too much work to do. For travelling fans, hangovers must be nursed, loans replenished, reservations secured and overpriced travel arrangements made.
Players and management must return to the well and summon the additional magic to prolong the adventure.
A third placed finish dictated that Ireland would be matched with a group winner and, as was the case at the World Cup in Italy, they’ve been pitted against the host nation.
As such, the French squad, replete with high-end offensive talent, are contending with the lofty expectations of a surly media and a public trying desperately to unite behind them.
Under O’Neill, Ireland have made an enjoyable habit of upsetting their superiors and, in Lyon this weekend, another unlikely feat of plucky footballing effrontery is required.
France often made hard work of topping a relatively average Group A, also comprising Switzerland, Albania and Romania. Perhaps their unevenness is a result of playing no competitive matches since the last World Cup or, possibly, the sign of more significant malaise.
Regardless, they boast some of the continent’s most superlative operators, whom the Boys in Green must endeavour to nullify.
Here we take a look at five of them:
Admittedly, listing a goalkeeper is hardly the sexiest of selections but the France number one is an elite player. Spurs enjoyed the best defensive record in the Premier League last season and Lloris was the bedrock of that effort.
The fact is, Ireland neither create chances nor score goals with great regularity, so felling a keeper as sharp as the 29-year-old will be a tall order. Lloris is agile, commanding and a fine distributor.
Kante’s emergence from anonymity during Leicester City’s title win was just another warming subplot in their overall fairy tale narrative. Sentiment aside, his engine is without peer and Kante, along with Italy’s Daniele Di Rossi and Sergio Busquets of Spain, is arguably the best defensive midfielder on the continent.
Somehow, Ireland will have to bypass this tackling machine if they are get a relatively new look French defence at their mercy.
When permitted, Kante also offers a booming thrust going forward.
A target of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea, should the 23-year-old leave Juventus this summer it will in all likelihood be for a world record fee.
In the realm of elite midfielders, few can boast a repertoire as comprehensive as Pogba. A languid but powerful athlete, Pogba covers ground with a consummate ease. He can also be wonderfully refined in possession and, from often audacious distances, the scorer of incredible goals.
However, there’s a caveat. Manager Didier Deschamps is yet to divine a way to fully utilise the former Manchester United player’s gifts; a source of unsavouriness between player, coach and the indigenous media.
Pogba was outstanding in the 0-0 draw with Switzerland on Sunday but, a mixed bag in the win over Romania and was demoted to the bench for the last gasp victory over Albania.
That said, he’s capable of abrupt moments of genius so there’s little point in dwelling too long on a rumoured disquiet in the French camp, lest we forget what happened against Belgium.
Like Pogba, Griezmann has been linked with many of the club game’s biggest names. The Atletico Madrid striker scored a total of 32 goals last season as Diego Simeone’s side finished third in La Liga and Champions League runners up.
Like Pogba, an indifferent display in the opener against Romania, meant Griezmann began as a replacement against Albania. Yet, when sprung from the bench, he broke the deadlock in the 90th minute with a sublime header, before Dimitri Payet garnished the win with an additional fine effort.
Griezmann is an apex finisher, a top of the food chain predator, the Irish rear guard cannot blink. Oh, by the way, Les Bleus can also call on Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud.
Another bolt from the proverbial blue in a truly singular Premier League campaign.
At West Ham, Payet was spellbinding and magnificent, while his free-kicks were a force of nature. He’s brought that stellar form to these championships and saved the French bacon on the opening night, when netting a bravura winner against a gritty Romania.
He doubled his tally in the belated dispatching of Albania, and now Ireland must find a way to, at the very least, stunt his influence.