Nicolas Anelka fired France a step closer to next summer's World Cup finals as
the Republic of Ireland's brave resistance finally wilted.
Anelka's 72nd-minute strike, which was deflected past Shay Given by the
unwitting Sean St Ledger, was enough to condemn Giovanni Trapattoni's side to
their first defeat of the qualifying campaign and send the French into Wednesday
night's return with a lead and a precious away goal.
In truth, it was scarcely more than Raymond Domenech's side deserved after a
dominant second-half display which at times left the Irish chasing shadows.
They might have won more comfortably had striker Andre-Pierre Gignac not sliced
horribly wide with the goal at his mercy with 10 minutes remaining.
However, it took a fine last-gasp save by keeper Hugo Lloris to deny Glenn
Whelan an equaliser as a bumper crowd of 74,103 at Croke Park dared to believe
If France had arrived in Dublin with any doubts about the determination of the
Irish to pile on the misery for under-pressure coach Domenech, they were
dispelled within seconds of their emergence at Croke Park.
Thierry Henry and his team-mates were greeted by a sea of green and a wall of
noise, and the commitment off the field was more than matched by the efforts of
the men on it.
Ireland knew they could not compete with the French for brilliant individual
skill or blistering pace, and so they concentrated on what they do best -
harrying, pressing and generally making a collective nuisance of themselves.
Inevitably, the visitors held sway for much of the opening half-hour as the
dangerous Anelka dropped deep on the right before either cutting inside or
feeding marauding full-back Bacary Sagna, while Henry's searing speed and the
brawn of central striker Gignac were constant threats.
But the doggedness of central defenders Richard Dunne and St Ledger - coupled
with that of the two men immediately in front of them, Keith Andrews and Whelan
- proved enough to limit France's front three and impressive playmaker Yoann
Of course, there were occasions when Domenech's men were simply too good for
the Irish - Dunne was spared punishment for a major error of judgement when he
allowed Eric Abidal's 11th-minute clearance to bounce over his head and Gignac
gleefully lobbed Shay Given, only for an offside flag to ruin his big moment.
Gourcuff warmed Given's hands with a well-struck 25th-minute snap-shot, while
Gignac and Henry both fired wide as the Irish keeper enjoyed a relatively quiet
first 45 minutes.
Opposite number Lloris was equally, if not more, under-employed, although he
did not see the flag which had gone up for a foul by Kevin Doyle marginally
before Robbie Keane ran on to his flick and forced a brave point-blank save
before Liam Lawrence's follow-up was deflected behind by Patrice Evra.
Keith Andrews curled a 31st-minute effort two feet wide, but the tie remained
finely balanced as the two sets of players headed for their respective dressing
The French resumed at break-neck pace and very nearly carved the Republic open
within seconds as Evra, Henry and Anelka combined to set up Sagna to cross, but
John O'Shea made sure it was he who made contact in the middle.
Ireland responded by instigating a goalmouth scramble which saw Keane and Kevin
Kilbane both denied by blocks, although once again a flag came to France's
However, they took that as their cue to make a concerted push and after Given
had made a regulation save to deny Gourcuff, he saw Lassana Diarra's 56th-minute
thunderbolt fly inches wide and then plucked Anelka's drive out of the air
Evra was devastated to have 69th-minute penalty appeals waved away after going
down under Given's challenge as he pursued Gourcuff's through-ball.
But the opening goal finally arrived with 18 minutes remaining as France made
their dominance pay, although with the help of a cruel twist of fate.
It was Gourcuff who once again fashioned the opening, picking out Anelka on the
edge of the box, and his shot deflected off St Ledger past the helpless Given
and in via the upright.
Gignac should have made it 2-0 with 10 minutes remaining when he was presented
with an open goal after Anelka had charged down Given's clearance, but he shot
wastefully wide and out for a throw-in.
That might have proved costly had Lloris not produced a brave block to deny
Whelan three minutes from time and then pushed away another dipping effort from
the midfielder, but there was no way back for the home side.
The final whistle brought angry exchanges on the pitch, but it was the men in
blue who were celebrating.