Tuesday 11 December 2018

‘Our use of the ball needs to improve’ – O’Neill says after 2-0 loss in France

France 2 Ireland 0

Olivier Giroud rises above Shane Duffy in the process of opening the scoring for France last night. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty
Olivier Giroud rises above Shane Duffy in the process of opening the scoring for France last night. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

An hour had elapsed at the Stade de France when the home crowd erupted at the sight of Antoine Griezmann removing his training top and preparing to enter the fray.

France were two up and in control. The rain was pouring from the heavens on an evening peppered by thunderstorms. And Didier Deschamps was about to send in the player that ruined Ireland's summer trip to these parts two years ago.

This was a point where Martin O'Neill's players could be forgiven for wishing they were already on summer holiday. Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele were still to come.

They did actually rally and succeed in shutting Griezmann and Co out for the remaining half-hour. The elements seemed to drain French enthusiasm to really go all out and inflict more damage and a puddle halted a late counter.

On the other hand, Ireland simply weren't capable of giving Steve Mandanda anything to do until injury time when Graham Burke - the first League of Ireland player to make a senior Irish appearance since 2007 - was involved in a move that ended with another sub, Shaun Williams, forcing a stop.

But overall this was comfortable for France, a nice warm-up as they build towards Russia.

RTE's Tony O'Donoghue is sheltered from the rain. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
RTE's Tony O'Donoghue is sheltered from the rain. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

This was always going to be tough for an under-strength Ireland side, and the fact that France enjoyed 89 per cent possession in the opening 15 minutes offers an insight into the flow of the game.

"We were naturally second best this evening against a world-class team," said O'Neill afterwards. "That's possibly to be expected.

"It was a really, really tough game for us but I'm pleased we have taken this fixture on because if you're trying to aspire to something - the quality that the French possess - we think the players can learn."

He did admit that Ireland were a distance off their opponents and it showed. In general play the hosts were just too slick and too composed. "Our use of the ball needs to improve," said O'Neill, mastering understatement.

Republic of Ireland's Shane Duffy (left) and France's Kylian Mbappe (right) battle for the ball. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Republic of Ireland's Shane Duffy (left) and France's Kylian Mbappe (right) battle for the ball. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire.

For long spells, Ireland struggled to get out of their own half.

Deschamps gave Mbappe and Nabil Fekir freedom to roam in support of central striker Olivier Giroud, and with full-backs Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe anxious to get forward at every opportunity, the French used the width of the pitch to stretch Ireland.

O'Neill did go with five in midfield in an attempt to stifle Les Bleus with Declan Rice in a holding role ahead of the back four, and his display was praised.

Callum O'Dowda was central next to Alan Browne and in an ideal world they would have been breaking to support Shane Long.

Outclassed

Those chances were few and far between, and they were outclassed. "It's a massive step up from the Championship," said O'Neill.

Derrick Williams - selected for a first cap at left-full - did get forward to send in one cross that actually ended up troubling Mandanda, yet it was fitting that Ireland's best goalscoring opportunity was a Shane Duffy header from a free.

The action was largely centred on the other end. Ireland were chasing the game for so long that when they did get hold of it, they gave it away just as quickly with a hopeful punt forward. And James McClean managed to upset a few locals with a rash tackle on Blaise Matuidi that was perhaps borne out of frustration.

France's superiority was obvious. Williams, a £250,000 buy for League One runners-up Blackburn Rovers, was trying to stop Mbappe who was bought by PSG for €180m.

Mbappe turned Williams inside out in one break that forced a near-post stop from Colin Doyle. Sidibe also left Irish players in a spin before teeing up a Corentin Tolisso strike that came back off the post. Ireland were hanging in there, yet they were ultimately undone by a set piece.

It's been a persistent problem over the past year, with Denmark's key goal in Dublin last November coming from a corner and Turkey scoring the only goal of March's friendly from the same route.

This concession was slightly more straightforward in the sense that Duffy was tasked with shackling Olivier Giroud and he lost him when Fekir swung in a corner, even though he seemed to be aware that the French attacker would be the target. Giroud forced the ball over the line after his initial header was blocked.

Ireland were five minutes away from the break at that point and the whistle was badly needed. However, they would manage to concede another, and it was a horror show for Doyle.

Fekir wandered into space and succeeded in getting a shot away despite the attentions of Rice. It was met by a weak attempt at a parry from the Bradford netminder that sent the ball up into the air and then over the line.

This was a moment to forget for the Corkman, although he did manage to redeem himself somewhat with a fine stop from Giroud following the restart. "He showed a bit of mettle and character," said O'Neill.

Mbappe was a persistent threat and Ireland players did anger the locals with a couple more fouls in an attempt to check momentum. Harry Arter came off the bench and went into the book.

There was no real pattern to the game after the changes. Burke did show some nice touches and Millwall midfielder Williams demanded the ball too.

Alan Judge and Matt Doherty also got on the pitch and they will take away happy memories from this occasion.

But for O'Neill and his staff, it was a reminder of how far his team are from the world's elite. "This was a great lesson for us in what we are trying to achieve," he said.

Saturday might provide a clearer idea of what that plan is.The summer of 2016 suddenly feels like a long time ago.

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