Henry's strike breaks Irish hearts

Republic Of Ireland 0 France 1
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The Independent Football

It was the cruellest of goals ­ albeit one executed with stiletto brilliance. But it followed an hour of luminous, vibrant but ultimately unrewarded attack by the Irish.

Such is football. To add insult to that injury Ireland will today survey the wreckage of Group Four and know that they go forward into their next tie ­ away to Cyprus ­ without the suspended trio of Roy Keane, Clinton Morrison and Andy Reid who all collected needless cautions.

They must win in Nicosia and beat Switzerland in Dublin to have any hope. "A big blow," was the verdict of Ireland's manager, Brian Kerr, who also knows that his neck is edging towards the chopping block.

That possibility will have only been hastened when the verdicts over Kerr's tactics are delivered. There will be questions over Kerr's decision not to alter formation to combat the free spirit of Zinedine Zidane. Kerr was also bereft once France went ahead.

Frustration has also hardened after the two careless draws with Israel. It may all be harsh but for a student of such things, as Kerr is, he will wake knowing that he has just led his country to their first defeat in a World Cup qualifier at home since Spain won in 1993. And the first to France after three successive victories.

But this was also the best his team had played since their goalless drew in Paris last autumn and with Roy Keane in commanding form and both Damien Duff and Andy Reid constant, creative threats, they only lacked a cutting edge.

Opportunities were spurned by Morrison and Robbie Keane with shots snatched at, half-hit. The nearest Ireland came was a crafty, curling free-kick by Reid which clipped the outside of the post in the first half.

Before that Zidane had drawn a wonderful fisted save from Shay Given but the French were undoubtedly rattled with Claude Makelele fortunate to escape for two sly digs at Roy Keane and Kevin Kilbane.

The sides had emerged to a raucous wall of sound as memories of the last, great World Cup win in Dublin ­ the victory over the Netherlands in 2001 ­ were awakened but, ultimately, not surpassed.

As the sides went in level the fear was that Ireland's best hope had gone. They continued to strive in the second half ­ Richard Dunne arcing a header over, Duff, jinking, driving forward. A warning came with two breaks by Zidane before, on 68 minutes, the French captain challenged Kenny Cunningham and the ball squirted to Henry.

He whisked it away as the defenders retreated and, from 20 yards, dipped a trademark shot round Given. It was a worthy winner but even Henry, who had looked troubled as a lone striker, appeared to apologise for taking the points afterwards.

"There was not a lot between the two sides," he shrugged. "I don't think Ireland deserved to lose." But once behind the hosts offered little except increasingly shapeless football.

"The team gave as good as they can. It was a very committed and organised performance," Kerr said. "But it was not enough." And that's what mattered.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Given; Carr (both Newcastle United), Dunne (Manchester City), Cunningham (Birmingham City), O'Shea (Manchester United); Reid (Tottenham Hotspur), Roy Keane (Manchester United), Kilbane (Everton), Duff (Chelsea); Robbie Keane (Tottenham Hotspur); Morrison (Crystal Palace). Substitutes used: Doherty (Norwich) for Morrison, 79; Harte (Levante) for Kilbane, 79.

FRANCE (4-2-3-1): Coupet (Lyon); Sagnol (Bayern Munich); Boumsong (Newcastle United), Thuram (Juventus), Gallas (Chelsea); Vieira (Juventus), Makelele (Chelsea); Wiltord (Lyon), Zidane (Real Madrid), Dhorasoo (PSG); Henry (Arsenal). Substitutes used: Malouda (Lyon) for Zidane, 69; Cissé (Liverpool) for Henry, 75.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany).