It wasn’t revenge, but it was at least respectability. Ireland go out of Euro 2016 after a spirited 2-1 defeat to hosts France but only after a long spell when it really seemed like something special was possible.
In the end, the exact commitment that put Ireland into such a strong-looking lead through Robbie Brady’s uplifting early penalty ended up costing them, as they seemed so fatigued even before Antoine Griezmann’s opening goal. The French star made this game his own, almost instantly getting the second, and could yet make this tournament his own.
For a game with so many historic echoes, Ireland could have one complaint at how they did not get a corner for a deflected Stephen Ward shot just before France’s winner. Once Shane Duffy had been red-carded for a last-man foul on Griezmann, that passed. France’s superior players were just passing through Ireland with too much ease at that point.
What will really last in the memory from this game is that, for close to an hour, it did feel like something truly huge was about to happen. It did feel like - to use a famous French phrase sung just before the game - the day of glory had arrived; that the team were about to produce what would have been the greatest sporting moment in the country’s history.
O’Neill’s side allowed the fans to believe at the very least, and that is not to be dismissed. It is to be celebrated - and respected.
Ireland barely gave France an inch of worthwhile space in the first half and, in that, the manner of the goal was so fitting because it set the tone. Ireland literally didn’t give France a kick either. The hosts’ first touch was when Hugo Lloris picked the ball out of the net after Brady had so perfectly placed the ball to go inside the post.
So many other elements of that remarkable opening 61 seconds also set the pattern of the opening period. Ireland were assured on the ball, comfortable and confident in themselves, and also so positive and proactive in everything they did. France’s individuals, meanwhile, were all over the place and just not playing together. Those issues came together as Shane Long turned in the box, and Paul Pogba so clumsily and absent-mindedly bundled into him. Brady then stepped up to display the decisiveness of the Italy game.
We then saw the emotion that has characterised their campaign.
The contrast between the teams was stark at that stage. While Ireland’s shape was excellent and every single player was doing their job so well, France just didn’t look like they worked as a team. The defence was shaky, the midfield was imbalanced, and the forwards weren’t playing together. Worse, the tension of the occasion seemed to be getting them, as little touches and bounces were going against them.On 10 minutes, a ball was played into the Irish box, only for it to cannon back of Dimitri Payet’s shin.
It helped, of course, that O’Neill’s players were on top of everything. Shortly before that, Shane Duffy had crucially got to a header before Giroud, before Griezmann later threw his arms up in frustration after the French number-nine predictably failed to get to a slick low pass.
It was a sign of so much that was wrong with the hosts. Didier Deschamps had a big job to figure out, as he was being out-coached by O’Neill, and his players were being out-fought by Ireland’s.
That was never clearer than just before half-time, when space finally seemed to open up for Payet. He hesitated with his shot, but Stephen Ward didn’t, throwing himself into a block. Griezmann immediately followed up but Duffy was instantly across.
France were not matching Ireland’s tackling, either in accuracy or tenacity, leading to N’Golo Kante getting a booking that keeps him out of the quarter-final.
It also arguably kept France in the competition. The risk of a Kante red card meant Deschamps was forced into an obvious change, removing one of the two defensive midfielders that made the French trudge rather than purr. That changed, once the manager changed Kingsley Coman for Kante.
France’s shape just instantly looked better, with Griezmann now through the middle.
It helped, however, that the commitment of the first half was now causing Ireland to drop off. Fatigue was getting to them. They were further back on the pitch, they weren’t as close to their men, and their decision-making got poorer.
France, meanwhile, just got better. It all combined to produce the equaliser. Bacary Sagna was afforded the kind of space the French just hadn’t seen in the first half, and he picked out a glorious cross that an unmarked Griezmann powered past Darren Randolph. It said so much that, after a first half when Ireland had risen above themselves, one of the smallest attackers was rising above bigger defenders.
France were released, and so was Griezmann. Moments after that, France played a direct ball up to Giroud, he headed it down, and the Atletico Madrid striker got his second of the game by sliding the ball home.
Ireland should have had a corner just before that but, if that is the kind of thing that could lead to a growing gripe, there could be no complaints about Duffy’s red card minutes later.
Just before then, McClean should have set up virtually any of the attackers for what would have been an easy tap-in, but his cross was poor.
It was, again, just down to the loss of energy; the build-up in fatigue.
Ireland were so jaded that it was difficult to believe they could do anything at that point.
It was so different, however, for so much of this game.