In the wake of France’s 1-1 draw against Serbia on September 9th in Belgrade, a result that unerringly condemned les Bleus to a risky playoff spot, a surprisingly chuffed Raymond Domenech answered journalists questions on the pitch, moments after the final whistle. Taking little heed of the prospect of having to go through a two legged tie which should never have been a consideration for a talented French side, he hailed the 200 friends that sent him an SMS in the days before the game and also his wife for her support, innocently grinning at the camera in front of him, as if to convey his outward satisfaction to the millions of deflated French fans behind the TV. It took him a month to realize the high level of uncertainty that surrounds France’s duty, especially since France drew Ireland, perhaps the most feared of possible opponents on this side of the Channel. Domenech spent no time praising his wife after the draw, hastily escaping the journalists surrounding him at a Lyon training camp and refusing to give his assessment of the Irish side. Later in the afternoon, he finally answered the questions of RTL, a decent radio station for stay-at-home moms whom happen to have an exclusive contract with the French football federation. He heralded that Ireland was as difficult a draw as possible, and that France will face nothing less than an "England 2" side in November, citing the players established in the Premier League. Funnily enough, his statement meant to big up the Irish was translated as exactly the opposite in most Dublin newspapers the next day, Ireland as an "England reserve team", which provoked an outcry that Domenech never wished for, as Ireland now has an extra-motivation coming into the game. Hence, if even Domenech’s communication tactics can be outdone, the Irish underdogs shall certainly believe in their chances next week. Other clinchers can elicit optimism among the Irish troops, notably :
Giovani Trapattoni’s experience
Here’s one selector who is also renowned for his peculiar communication skills and long-winded press conferences, albeit in an entirely different register to Domenech's stonewalling.
Yet the biggest difference between the Milan-born selector and his French counter-part - who only managed France U21 and a second-league Olympique Lyonnais in the early 1990s -, is the former has coached the likes of Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus, and is the only Italian ever to have led Bayern Munich, landing two Scudettos, two Champions Leagues and one German silverware in the process. His experience as a manager is peerless; Domenech still has not won a trophy. This trashy prize list contributes to the French selector failing to impart confidence to his squad, as underscored by Thierry Henry’s private conversation with him at the Clairefontaine training camp two days before the decisive Romania game in early September,where he revealed his team-mates' confusion at "wayward" training sessions in which everything was "conducted randomly" by the French selector. Although this statement was quickly disclaimed, it obviously contained a certain amount of truth as testified the next day by Florent Malouda, left startled not to find his jersey in the locker-room minutes before the kick-off against Romania, having seemingly been told earlier he was picked in the starting 11.
The impact of Domenech's questionable coaching cannot be undermined; in hindsight, it even proved a decisive factor for France during the qualification groups campaign, as it turned out to be the best selector in the group 7 whose team topped the table by the end. Serbia’s Radomir Antić was indeed by all accounts the most experienced selector among all contenders, having coached the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and his rallying abilities single-handedly enabled Serbia to edge it in a group where Domenech’s France and Romania (led by the inexperienced Victor Piturça and Razvan Luçescu) were seen as favourites. We ought to wish Trapattoni, unlucky thus far at International level with the Italian outfit, that this tendency keeps up and the best manager gets the upper hand next week.
One of the best defensive midfielders in the world in his prime (Pelé himself admitted seldom having been under such tight a grip as when facing Trapattoni), his defensive awareness is what made his name as a manager and what could prove vital against the French, who struggled most in the group stages against teams who set no tempo to the game and sat deep, notably low-key Lithuania and the Feroe Islands, both narrowly defeated away by a one goal leeway.
Robbie Keane’s confidence
The Irish captain is in sparkling form with the national team and Tottenham alike, having scored 5 in both the WC group stages and the Premier League. He is one of the five players (alongside Given, O’Shea, Dunne and Kilbane) who have already faced the French fighting for a World Cup spot back in September 2005 at Lansdowne Road, only to be narrowly defeated by a Thierry Henry second-half curler. Nonetheless, this backbone will be of useful help for the younger team-mates coming in for what will presumably be a tight game, while France on the other hand will only have Grandpas Henry and Gallas to recall the fiery atmosphere emanating from the Irish crowd.
Franck Ribéry’s knee
The French wizard yielded France six vital points in the double encounter with Lithuania in April and has been key to France's performances in the past two years. His absence automatically means one of Thierry Henry or Florent Malouda will occupy the left flank, the former being rather average at it with the French team, the latter well known to John O’Shea, the United full-back who will take charge of either of them. Most of France’s capacity to surprise its opponent vanishes with Ribéry, only to let the usual suspects try and quarrel with Ireland’s back four that conceded one less than the French during the group stages (8 goals to 9). The likes of Karim Benzema and André-Pierre Gignac being currently slightly out of form, France’s best weapon will certainly be Yoann Gourcuff, the Bordeaux attacking midfielder who will have to deal with a big amount of responsibilities on his still fragile shoulders. Ribéry's absence is coupled with Patrick Vieira failing to be called up by Domenech after a magnificent display with Inter Milan against AS Roma upon returning from injury. This has caused an outcry in France and rightly so, as the only other defensive midfielder capable of crossing the halfway line while still getting hold of the ball, the Gunner Abou Diaby, is out injured.
5 + 5 = 10
The number of goals conceded by Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda in the epic Lyon-Marseille game last Sunday. According to Domenech, no hierarchy is settled between both goalkeepers as to who will start at Croke Park; they did little to establish one on Sunday, imitating each other's mistakes and making them more and more silly as the game wore on. One should point out at how seldom there had been such an uncertainty in the French outfit as to who will finally step in the shoes of Number 1 goalkeepers following the path of glorious Fabien Barthez and Bernard Lama. Shay Given, on the contrary, need not feeling too anxious about it.
Stade de France’s ignorance
The second leg takes place on French soil, but hardly in what we’d call a welcoming stadium for the French squad. The Stade de France is indeed renowned for its whimsy attendance that jeers its own players whenever they concede a goal, or at half-time if no goal was scored against weaker opposition. The stadium is commonly referred to as the « Footix haven », referencing to the 1998 World Cup mascot, the competition for which the stadium was built in the mid-1990s and during which most of its eventual attendance first met up with football.
The crowd's reputation is well deserved; in France’s last outing against Austria, the Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was enjoying a decent evening when the crowd started shouting « Mandanda, Mandanda ! » for a good two minutes, asking for the reserve goalkeeper to come off the bench after Lloris was deemed responsible for Austria's goal. Akin events are dime a dozen in the Saint-Denis stadium, foremost whipping boys including Karim Benzema and Nicolas Anelka for their unbearable laziness. Such a behaviour from the crowd evidently elicits negative feelings among the French squad, players admitting to feel like playing away fixtures at the Stade de France. Hence, attempting to cool down the relationship between players and fans, Noel le Graet (vice-chairman of the French football federation) relocated the Feroe Islands home game in October to the pint-sized 18,000 seats Roudourou Stadium, home to the low-key Ligue 2 side FC Guingamp, where France dismantled a fairly weak opponent amid a jovial Breton atmosphere. The next day, overzealous newspapers were begging for the impending play-offs to take place at the Roudourou, which would loosely equal to the Irish team playing at Newbridge Town's Station Road.
As eventually the Stade de France got the upper hand, Domenech recalled how in 2004, when Ireland last visited Paris, more than 30,000 Irish fans stood in the stands. The French selector was visibly anxious at a similar scenario unfolding, and issued a statement on RTL saying « it would be useless to play in front of an Irish crowd like the other time, so please French fans, go and buy tickets to prevent the Irish to sweep them all. That would be a first victory. The Britons (sic) are good at reacting quickly, I’m sure they are even already booking tickets on the internet ». Too humble, the French selector didn't mention he is also quite efficient at anticipating, as underlined by his trip to South Africa last March, resulting in the booking of a luxury hotel his team may never disclose.
M6’s ill luck
The folkloric French television channel M6, renowned for its song contests and soap operas, isn’t quite used to broadcasting football games, which didn‘t prevent it from being inexplicably picked to cover the Croke Park game. That represents a good sign for Ireland as the French have never won a game with M6 at the helm. The last time it broadcast the French national team was in the 2008 European Championships, when a nightmare of a game against Italy eliminated les Bleus from a competition they entered as firm favourites. The loss prompted Raymond Domenech to try and convince everyone that the team performed quite well, before proposing his then fiancée for marriage, minutes after the final whistle following a truly disastrous performance. It was perhaps one of the most staggering on-pitch interviews of all time, conducted in front of flabbergast commentators that include Chelsea legend Franck Leboeuf, whose golden analysis of the game, coupled with potential comedy moments from Domenech during the post-match interview, might at least alleviate the French fans’ sorrow in case of a potential upset.
The bottom line is Ireland can believe in its chances to upset France in next week's play-offs, as Domenech's side lacks the stability and confidence implemented by Trapattoni in a united, solid, eerie Irish side. Here's to Trapattoni !