Host nation France entertain the Republic of Ireland in the round of 16 at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon, still yearning for a complete performance.
France have been far from convincing in all their group stage matches, but can turn over a new leaf in the knockout stages when it faces the Green Army. In the opening two games against Romania and Albania the French left it late and had to rely on individual quality from Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann to bail them out. An improved outing in its most recent match only yielded a goalless draw with Switzerland. Nevertheless, Didier Deschamps’ men topped the group with seven points and will hope to build on those performances moving forward.
As for Ireland, they are in unchartered waters since it is the first time in its history to advance to the knockout phase of a European Championship. A draw against Sweden, before suffering a comprehensive loss to Belgium connoted into a must win against Italy to progress – and they did with flying colours. A stirring 1-0 win over the Azzurri courtesy of Robbie Brady’s header ensured qualification. But they encounter a stern test against Les Bleus and will be more than up for the challenge, especially with unfinished business to settle. The controversial ‘hand of god’ incident in 2009 involving Thierry Henry saw France secure qualification to the 2010 World Cup at the expense of the Irish. It means the fire in the belly will be as strong as ever and a win would be cathartic for the nation.
Key Battle – Dimitri Payet vs Robbie Brady
Payet has been one of the stars of the tournament to date and he will be relied upon to deliver again for his nation. The West Ham man combines his trickery and poise on the ball to unpick any watertight defence with an exquisite pass and has the ability to score screamers from anywhere outside the box.
Brady played his best performance in an Ireland shirt against the Azzurri, scoring the decisive goal to get his side into the next round. He is a utility, capable of being deployed as a left-back or left-winger, and even assuming the central midfield role as indicative of last match. Brady was excellent at breaking the lines and utilised his enterprise with a tireless work rate.
Deschamps, who is yet to settle on a stable lineup will again make more changes. After an impressive showing, Moussa Sissoko could start ahead of Blaise Matuidi, while N’Kolo Kante should return in favour of Yohan Cabaye. Andre-Pierre Gignac will also drop out for Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet is reinstated for Kingsley Coman.
O’Neill has some tough decisions to make ahead of this clash. The conundrum over where Robbie Brady’s best position is seems solved and could start in the centre of midfield, instead of on the flank. Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy could also usurp the centre-back pairing of John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark. After a mixed, yet ultimately successful cameo appearance against Italy, Wes Hoolahan could return to play in behind Shane Long.
France have claimed seven victories in 16 meetings versus Ireland, with the latter winning four. Les Bleus have not lost to the Green Army in five matches and it is the pair’s first meeting at the Euros.
The last time these two teams met occurred in 2009 on that fateful day for Irish fans and players alike. With the tie evenly poised at 1-1 on aggregate in extra-time, Henry used his hand to control the ball, before squaring it across to William Gallas who tapped home. It finished 2-1 on aggregate sealing the fate of the Boys in Green and failing to reach the World Cup in South Africa.
Given how this tournament has unfolded with no match appearing a mere formality, expect the Irish to trouble France on the break and from set pieces. Les Bleus will be up for the fight and probably dominate possession and chances. Though, the fact they are playing on home soil should get them over the line against a spirited Martin O’Neill outfit.
France 1-0 Ireland