It was tempting to see the France - Ireland play off as a head to head between a limited group of players under a shrewd and decorated coach against a group of potential world-beaters under a comically inept one.
On the basis of the two games, the only part of that statement that is unarguably true is that Raymond Domenech is indeed a clown- he is threatening to turn France into also-rans before a ball is even kicked this Summer. As for those other assumptions: well, Trapattoni has undeniably had a very successful career at the highest level of the game over the last few decades, but the nagging, infuriating doubt remains over whether he maximised this team's potential in these World cup qualifiers. It seems churlish to say that, what with the apparent shambles he inherited, but Dunphy and Giles have talked throughout the campaign about the ability that we have, that the Italian hadn't seemed to elicit from the players because of his suffocating tactics. Many laughed as Dunphy overstated his point, talking about how half our team could apparently walk into better sides, but last night those players proved him half right. They'll never be Brazil, we all know that, but they can play when let off the leash.
France on the other hand were deplorable in most departments. Having an inadequate manager is one thing, but when your team is such a character-free zone that Thierry Henry is made captain you're really in trouble, something Arsenal fans know all about. While Domenech certainly makes it difficult for his players with strange selections, such as leaving out Benzema, and a clearly ineffective formation, it's not unheard of for a team of big characters to negotiate such obstacles. When they still had Zidane and Vieira, even while both seemed in decline, they should have won the last World cup despite having the idiot on the sideline. Not many in football have a great deal of respect for Luis Aragones, but his Spain side had the talent and the character to comfortably win the last European championships. And the man who was dubbed "Average Grant" by his own players very nearly presided over chelsea's first European cup win, only for luck to intervene on Man United's side. In all these cases, you would trust the players involved to deliver even if the man in official charge was not up to it. That's not the case with the current France crop.
Highly-rated players were made to look ordinary by their supposedly ordinary counterparts. This suggests that some- Lassana Diarra and Gourcuff in particular spring to mind- need a strong guiding hand and perhaps an odd kick up the hole. Others- Alou Diarra, Gignac- just aren't particularly good. And then there's the Henrys, the Anelkas, the guys who will never be remembered in the very top bracket of world class talent because they don't apply themselves well enough, often enough, and particularly not on the big occasions. Anelkas' been getting rave reviews lately and over the two legs he was the danger man but that danger was never frightening, as illustrated by his lucky goal in the first leg. He'd never before been to a World cup; to me, he didn't look that bothered on a night where surely hunger should have been there for all to see. So, he's languid, or lazy, depending on your personal view of the guy. With Henry, the problem is mental. We shouldn't deny it as Arsenal fans, the guy is a big game bottler. By my reckoning, he's played in eight major finals, had great chances in most of them, and not scored once.
My most bitter memory as an Arsenal fan is of the champions League final in 06, which we should have won with 10 men. Henry had the chance to seal it not long before Barca's equaliser, but bottled a one-on-one with Valdes that he would have buried in a low-stakes situation. He let out his usually hidden darkside in a risible post-match rant where he hit out at everyone- Puyol, Eto'o, Ronaldinho, the ref- but himself. I was devastated myself but even then I felt embarrassed for the guy- what a sore loser. Lastnight, in the same stadium, maybe Henry felt he was exorcising some demons but what he really did was show his weak character again.
The Irish reaction has been a little over the top maybe. He's hardly the first player to act in that manner. But that don't make it right and he's always been the type of poser who'd have you believe he would never try such a thing. He had an opportunity to break new ground in football, to be admired as no player ever before, if he held his cheating hands up and helped the referee out. Maybe that's overly idealistic, I'm sorry, Dunphy inspired me last night. There is something rotten in the state of football and lastnight was a chance to kickstart the game's redemption but it was always going to be too much to ask of Thierry the hypocrite Henry. He's always been a poser, always projected a facade. In the Highbury tunnel in 2005, Roy Keane berated Patrick Vieira for "pretending you're a nice guy". Sometimes I think he picked the wrong target.
One final thought for tonight. Human beings will always be fallible- the players in their actions, and the officials in their split-second perceptions of those actions- but surely the introduction of video technology in some form can't be far away.