After just provided one of the greatest moments in the country’s soccer history, the Republic of Ireland will now to look to pull off an even more momentous upset by knocking out Euro 2016 host France in the first knockout round. After a draw with Sweden and heavy defeat to Belgium, Ireland appeared to be heading home from the competition at the first hurdle when Wes Hoolahan missed a golden chance to put Ireland in front in a must-win game against Italy. But just a minute later, Hoolahan popped up once more, this time crossing in for Robbie Brady to head home and send the mass ranks of green in Lille and millions more back home in Ireland into ecstasy.
It was a win that recalled similar giant-slayings from years past, notably against world champion Germany in qualifying and again against Italy in the 1994 World Cup. A meeting with France, though, brings back very different kinds of memories.
It is now almost seven years ago that Ireland traveled to Paris for the second leg of a playoff to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and put in a fine performance to level up the series and take it into extra time. But Ireland would have its dreams crushed by a goal created by one of the more blatant and famous handballs to ever avoid escape the attention of a referee, as Thierry Henry set up William Gallas to send France to South Africa.
Current coach Martin O’Neill has insisted that his team doesn’t need to use revenge as a motivation as it looks to go in search of a first ever quarterfinal appearance in a European Championship. And even if Ireland is a massive underdog against the tournament host and favorite, O’Neill is determined for his men to to give France a real fight in Lyon.
“In the game against Italy, we knew needed some extra energy in the team,” he said in a press conference ahead of the game. “We have some older players playing, certainly in their 30s, so we had to get that energy into the side, which we did – and not only did we have that energy, we played brilliantly in the match, so we have those things to look forward to.
“But I don’t think you would want to head out of the competition meekly, that’s the most important thing. You want to go out blazing if you can and we want to try to stay in it because we feel we can do something.”
Ireland has been hampered by having three days fewer than its opponent to prepare for the contest, after France confirmed its place as Group A winner with a goalless draw against Switzerland. While the end result was a success, it was a third successive performance in which the host had failed to match pre-tournament expectations.
Wins over Romania and Albania were only secured with late goals, with West Ham playmaker Dimitri Payet scoring in both matches and playing a key role. There have also been significant changes made to the lineup for each game from coach Didier Deschamps, as even star men Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann have been in and out of the side. Deschamps, though, has attempted to stress that whatever happened in the group stage is now irrelevant that the knockout phase is underway.
“At the end of the match you are either through or you are out,” he said. “It does make things a little bit more exciting but that won’t inhibit us. Our aim is to get over this hurdle. It is like a second competition within the tournament which is about to begin but it was always our aim to be part of that.”
For the match with Ireland, it is expected that Deschamps will go back to the lineup that began the competition against Romania, meaning that Payet, Blaise Matuidi, N’Golo Kante and Olivier Giroud will return to the starting XI. Ireland has a doubt over Stephen Ward after the left-back took a kick to his ankle, but Jonathan Walters, who has been out since the first game with Sweden, could be back in contention.
Prediction: It is no surprise that Deschamps is keen to put the group phase behind him after France failed to click in its first three games. The sense remains that he doesn’t know his best lineup from a hugely talented squad and crucially hasn’t got his best players gelling together into a cohesive force. If that continues on Sunday and the Republic of Ireland plays with the same belief and intensity it showed against Italy then it can certainly give the host a real scare. France, though, at some point, very possibly late on, should make its far greater quality count.
Predicted Score: France 1-0 Republic of Ireland
Kickoff Time: 9 a.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN