Shortly before half-time on Saturday evening, the Croke Park crowd howled with delight as a dithering Nicolas Anelka, starved of options, laboured in possession for so long that he was pickpocketed by Robbie Keane. You could say that the moment summed up a first half where Ireland succeeded in rattling their visitors. The bigger picture, however, is that the vignette goes some way towards explaining the French victory secured by the boot of Anelka and an unfortunate deflection off Sean St Ledger.
To contain Les Bleus Ireland needed an energetic defensive effort that was ultimately unsustainable. An Irish team operating a rigid system encountered opponents with an open mind. Anelka may have cut a frustrated figure before the interval, but he kept coming back until the 72nd-minute moment when, finally, there was no pursuer in sight. The ricochet was cruel for the hosts and, particularly, the impressive St Ledger. Yet there was nothing fortuitous about the build-up.
When Kevin Kilbane gave the ball away, Lassana Diarra, Yoann Gourcuff and Anelka combined rapidly to create the space. There were similar passages of play in the second half until the visitors got their reward.
Is this over? The simple reality is that Ireland will have to achieve their best ever result on opposition soil to turn it around in Paris on Wednesday. There is no precedent.
Nevertheless, Giovanni Trapattoni can draw comfort from the fact that when his side got enough bodies into the box they found France nervous at the back. Between now and Wednesday, the Italian must decide if that knowledge will alter his approach.
After all, he can no longer claim that his team are unbeaten in competitive action. The Italian stressed that the play-off required extra from what was produced in the qualification group. That next level requires being more than just difficult to beat.
"The one thing we didn't want to do is concede a goal and we did that," said a deflated Robbie Keane. "We knew it was going to be tough on Wednesday, but it's going to be tougher now."
The match was frenetic in the opening stages with Damien Duff assuming the unlikely role of aggressor with a crunching tackle on Bacary Sagna after 20 seconds.
For under-fire France coach Raymond Domenech, who later confirmed that he rowed with his captain Thierry Henry in the team hotel beforehand, it was a disconcerting period. Anelka and Gourcuff exchanged angry words amid a frenzy of Irish tackles.
Ireland should have gone ahead in the 24th minute. An innocuous long ball prompted chaos as Kevin Doyle rose to flick Robbie Keane into space. The Irish captain was unable to clip the ball over the advancing Hugo Lloris who could only divert the ball into the path of Liam Lawrence. Lawrence seemed to be guilty of an embarrassing miss but replays proved that Patrice Evra had somehow diverted the goalbound poke to safety.
After half-time France imposed themselves with Lassana Diarra gaining a foothold. Anelka and Henry floated around freely as Ireland's battery power wore down.
Much hope had rested on Ireland's set pieces but they forced only three corners and never won a free-kick in a dangerous area. For all their frailty under aerial assault, the French rearguard, as Eric Abidal suggested mid week, were clever enough in terms of staying on their feet.
Anelka's goal forced Trapattoni to make three substitutions but there was little time for Leon Best, Aiden McGeady or Stephen Hunt to make a real impact. A howler from Abidal did allow Best and Keane to combine for Glenn Whelan's last-ditch attempt to restore parity but that effort was denied by Lloris.
"I thought Glenn would score, it was bad luck," reflected Keane. "Hopefully we can get some of it on Wednesday. We know it has to be something special but we're not talking about a normal game here. We're talking about qualifying for the World Cup. If we don't believe we can win it, then we won't."
The problem for Ireland is that sometimes belief and spirit is simply not enough. The dream is slipping away.
Republic of Ireland: Given; O'Shea, St Ledger, Dunne, Kilbane, Lawrence (McGeady 76), Whelan, Andrews, Duff (Hunt, 80), Doyle (Best, 72), Keane. Substitutes not used: Joe Murphy (gk), McShane, Kelly, Gibson.
France: Lloris; Sagna, Gallas, Abidal, Evra, L Diarra, A Diarra, Gourcuff, Anelka, Gignac (Malouda, 90), Henry. Substitutes not used: Mandanda (gk), Escude, Govou, Benzema, Sissoko, Squillaci.
Referee: F Brych (Germany).
Final countdown: Qualifiers' details
Qualified for finals
hosts South Africa. Africa Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon.
Asia Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea. Europe Denmark, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland.
South America Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina. North, Central America and caribbean United States, Mexico and Honduras.
Asia/Oceania play-off winner New Zealand.
to be completed on wednesday
Uruguay (1) v Costa Rica (0) ko 23.00
France (1) v Rep of Ireland (0) 20.00
Ukraine (0) v Greece (0) 18.00
Slovenia (1) v Russia (2) 19.45
Bosnia (0) v Portugal (1) 19.45
Algeria v Egypt (one-off match to decide winner of African Group C) 17.30Reuse content