Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni and his players know their best and possibly only chance of reaching next year’s World Cup is for France to make a mistake in the second leg of the teams’ playoff on Wednesday.
Ireland needs to score at least once in the second leg at Stade de France to have any chance of making it to the tournament in South Africa but rarely came close to doing so in Saturday’s first game, when Nicolas Anelka’s deflected shot earned France a 1-0 win.
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Trapattoni hopes the pressure of performing in front of a critical and impatient home crowd forces France to push forward more this time against his defensively resilient team.
That would leave more space for what can often be an attackingly impotent Irish side.
“At home, they cannot play like this because it is in front of their fans,” the 70-year-old Italian coach said. “I think it is possible to score a goal: at a corner or a free kick. I hope we will have this situation.
“We cannot allow them to play like they want. We must play with the same attitude, the same tactic. We have to press a little bit more.”
Trapattoni’s caution is understandable.
France won the 1998 World Cup and twice hoisted the European Championship trophy and, although coach Raymond Domenech has attracted criticism for his inability to coax the best out of a talented squad, France is still 23 places above Ireland at No. 9 in FIFA’s rankings.
In fact, Ireland has been ranked above France just once since FIFA started its monthly rankings – and that was in the inaugural list of August 1993.
France was below its best but could have won by more Saturday since it had an 11th-minute strike by Andre-Pierre Gignac disallowed for offside.
Even so, Ireland created some chances.
All-time leading scorer Robbie Keane was blocked by the goalkeeper at close range, Liam Lawrence had a shot deflected just past the post and Keith Andrews shot wide.
The tough tackling of Andrews and Glenn Whelan was crucial to limiting French ambition. With neither team attracting a suspension-incurring yellow card, Trapattoni is set to disappoint critics hopeful of a more attacking approach at Stade de France and stick with the same lineup.
He even withdrew Lawrence and winger Damien Duff toward the end of the match to keep them sufficiently fresh for the second game.
“I think our individual performance was enough for all players,” Trapattoni said. “As for the side, I have to look to see if anyone is tired, but at the moment I don’t think to change anything.”
Ireland has never qualified ahead of France on the five previous occasions the teams have been paired in the preliminaries for the World Cup, but, unlike its opponent, was one of five European teams to complete its group matches undefeated this time around.
While 2006 World Cup runner-up France finished second to first-time qualifier Serbia in what was meant to be a straightforward group, Ireland was runner-up only to Italy. It drew 1-1 with the World Cup holders in Bari and drew 2-2 in Dublin only after conceding a last-minute equalizer.
“It’s halftime and we have another game to go in Paris,” striker Kevin Doyle said. “We have gone to Italy against the world champions and we got a goalm, so why not in France?”