Yesterday I focused mainly on France, and Henry, and mentioned little of the finest Irish performance I have ever witnessed.
As mentioned, nothing of what we'd seen in the campaign so far realistically suggested that Ireland could overturn the deficit from the home leg of the tie. Trapattoni had done a stellar job of organising the mess he inherited from Staunton into a genuinely hard to beat side, but he had done so at the expense of any flair or positive football. Andy Reid was thus exiled, despite his often excellent form for Sunderland. While there seems a personal grudge at the heart of the matter, it's also probably true that Trap felt Reid a luxury player for a side that would need ten outfield battlers. It's even worth wondering how the Italian would use the habitually adventurous Stephen Ireland, had he been available.
The ten group games became a success story- not one defeat among them- but six draws told the tale that, aesthetically, this was something of a slog. Of the victories- two against both cyprus and Georgia- none were particularly convincing. Against Bulgaria and Italy, Ireland had some good spells of play. In both of the Bulgaria games, a goal lead saw the Irish fall back into costly cautiousness, but it seemed the manager preferred this to potential defeat arising from a more attacking policy. Likewise the home game against Italy saw a strong start and a goal followed by a retreat into our proverbial shell. Even in the wins and the two goalless games against Montenegro, Ireland barely asserted themselves against the minnows, seemingly unable to take control. The only sustained instance of this was against the ten men of Italy, who dropped back on the defensive in typical style and were punished with Keane's late equaliser.
So, the question was, are these players simply not good enough to play in an expansive fashion, or are they being held back by a negative manager?
That hasn't been answered conclusively, but the Stade de France suggested that these players can play when not shackled by negative tactical constraints. One could counter that they only delivered when there was nothing to lose, but the fact remains that after their beautifully-worked opener, Ireland did not sit back and pray for penalties but continued to attack with conviction. Not just route one, "put 'em under pressure" football either, although there was some of that, but also some incisive passing play. Liam Lawrence was at the heart of a lot of the constructive stuff. The real joy was not in seeing the heroic work-rate, because we expected that of this team. It was in seeing Ireland have the moral courage to take the game to superior opponents.
We should have won it in normal time. First Duff, then Keane were released by Lawrence. Duff was denied by the outstanding Lloris (now there's a keeper, Arsene!), Keane by his own tendency for flash when efficiency is called for. Let's hope his miss does not haunt Duff,who turned back the clock to torture Sagna and was clearly devastated at the end. Even our much-maligned midfield pairing proved more than a match for a French midfield that apparently had a numerical advantage.
You have to wonder, though, about the manager's decisions regarding the two Reids. Even if he despises Andy, or thinks him too unpredictable to be a regular starter, surely he should be in the squad to provide guile when it is desperately needed? An exhausted Lawrence was replaced by the perennially ineffective McGeady and we barely toubled France after that. And while he may say that Stephen Reid is currently in no fit state to take part in a game of such magnitude, was that not also the case for Darron Gibson, the only real option we had to replace the injured Whelan? Either Reid would have been a preferable alternative for me in the circumstances but Trap does not seem to like options. The lack of depth was best illustrated by the game-changing introduction of the bumbling McShane for the limping O'Shea. There was more threat about France just for the presence of the Hull man, and amid all the furore over the handball, it's been largely ignored that the ball never would have reached Henry if the defender did his job.
A replay is highly unlikely, so I won't dwell on that. To be fair, FIFA are right to assert that it would set a dangerous precedent. Many games are decided by such unjustices. True, the stakes have rarely been so high, but ponder this. Ireland were gifted an equaliser at home to Georgia when awarded the most inexplicable penalty I've ever seen. Had that not happened, we might not even have made the play-offs. As Roy Keane said today, Ireland weren't offering Georgia a rematch after such inept authority turned that game.
That said, such incidents have rarely proved as cataclysmic as was the case Wednesday night. Surely now is the time to stop this madness and introduce some form of technology to aid the officials.