Ireland a warm-up act for World Cup-bound French but O'Neill wants new boys to shine
It promises to be a good occasion for an inexperienced Ireland squad in Paris tonight, but nothing compares to the real thing.
The Stade de France evokes a range of emotions for Irish fans and players. This November marks the ninth anniversary of Thierry Henry's handball and all the heartbreak and anguish that went with it.
Two summers ago the European Championships adventure created happier memories, with Wes Hoolahan scoring a glorious goal against Sweden at this venue, yet that competition ended with a deflating defeat to the hosts in Lyon.
The fact that France had three extra days to prepare for that encounter still nags at Martin O'Neill, especially as his side visibly wilted in the heat.
In comparison, then, this is a bit of a comedown. In 2009 and 2016, France's participation in a major competition hinged on scraping past Ireland, and they were made to sweat.
Tonight Ireland are merely a warm-up act for a French side that is cranking up the preparations for Russia. With the exception of League of Ireland duo Shane Supple and Graham Burke, O'Neill's squad are now in their last week of the season.
No matter what happens tonight, the summer of 2018 will go down in the record books as a missed opportunity. A glamour friendly is no consolation.
Still, the quality of the French will make this a test, and the mentality of the Irish group should ensure that it's competitive. Indeed, O'Neill took umbrage at any suggestion that his group could be in wind-down mode compared to their hosts.
"If I was playing in this game for the Republic of Ireland, I wouldn't be considering winding down for the match," said O'Neill.
"I'd be considering it a great honour to play in this game. Particularly if I had no caps or one cap or three caps. It would be really important as an international player to see where I stand."
The Derryman had spoken of playing an experienced side for this game, but circumstances will force him to take some gambles.
A lower back injury has prevented Jeff Hendrick from travelling, although he may still figure against the USA at the weekend. O'Neill also indicated that Harry Arter will not be ready to play a full part in this game.
That may well open the door for Declan Rice (below) to figure in midfield next to David Meyler. Preston's Alan Browne may also get the opportunity to improve on his showing in Turkey in March, where Ireland's midfield toiled in a 3-5-2 formation.
Ireland's manager suggested that he would consider going that way again, yet he also added that he went that way in order to get two strikers - Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan - on the pitch. Both are absent from Paris.
O'Neill could conceivably pair Shane Long and Jon Walters, yet the latter is short on match sharpness and it's possible he could be kept in reserve.
Callum O'Dowda is fit and is an option to play on the right, with James McClean on the left. The one position where O'Neill will have to take a punt is on the left side of defence. Stephen Ward is taking an extended break in order to manage a long-standing injury.
The uncapped Derrick Williams started Scott Brown's testimonial, while Greg Cunningham and Enda Stevens were introduced as substitutes at a point where the game had become especially ragged.
Cunningham does have some experience at this level, although he did give away a goal in Glasgow within minutes of his introduction, which may not have helped his cause.
An alternative idea would be to deploy Matt Doherty on the left. He did excel as a right wing-back for Wolves this term, but does have experience in that position.
"Stephen Ward has been the regular left-back for the four years that I've been involved," said O'Neill.
"It's up to someone to go and try and grab that position, or at least try and make it difficult for Stephen to get back in again. It's an opportunity for someone that is going to be selected."
Colin Doyle is in pole position to win his third cap between his sticks, with the unavailability of Darren Randolph, Keiren Westwood and Rob Elliot opening the door for the Bradford City goalkeeper. He has another League One player, Peterborough's Conor O'Malley, and Bohemians stopper Shane Supple providing competition.
Burke is third-choice striker behind Long and Walters and it's not far-fetched to think he could get on at some stage, although Roy Keane did mention last week that this is a game where selection could be weighted towards players in other positions.
Primarily it will be a defensive exercise. It's expected that the French front three will be Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Lyon's rising star Nabil Fekir. Ireland's players will have their hands full.
"For some of the younger kids, this would be as big a game as some of them might have played in," O'Neill stressed,
"France are a very, very strong side, very strong at home and preparing for a World Cup. They are world class opposition and it's a massive test."
Rice's Premier League experience has given him plenty of preparation for coping with elite performers. That said, going toe-to-toe with them in midfield would be a new experience. Steven Nzonzi and Blaise Matuidi are tipped to feature. O'Neill will find out more about Browne in this company.
Captain Seamus Coleman will have Mbappe tearing down his flank, so he will have plenty to occupy his mind. The last time Coleman stepped out on this pitch, he made Hoolahan's goal and he was honest about his feelings going into this encounter. He has Everton colleagues bound for Russia, and envy is setting in.
"Obviously, the disappointment has grown a little bit more again recently with all the excitement of the World Cup and we're disappointed not to be there," said the Irish captain.
"But since that night against Denmark, once we let that settle down, we needed to get prepared for the next campaign and that's what we're starting to do."
Ireland should learn a lot from this fixture. Any jealousy caused by French excitement should be motivation for the road ahead.
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