Keane's cavaliers foil the French

France 0 Republic of Ireland 0
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Their players appropriated much of the match, their fans almost all of the stadium, and last night St Denis was supplanted by St Patrick. The Republic of Ireland may have only earned a draw against France but it felt like more. With Switzerland and Israel also achieving parity it means that four nations top Group Four. But the Irish have negotiated their trickiest two away games. Their fate is squarely in their hands.

The French have lost just once here since this stadium opened in 1997 but Ireland, with Roy Keane imperious, came mighty close to toppling the country who may have been stripped off their titles but still rank second in the world. The French inquisitions will run deep and the boos rang out at the end. Indeed, it all took place amid extraordinary scenes. Up to 35,000 fans had promised to come. And come they did. This 80,000-seat bowl was, truly, a sea of green. The Fields of Athenry rang out, the Marseillaise muted.

The opening sentence in the match programme said it all for the French. "Gagner", it read. Only victory was acceptable. It was echoed in the sports daily L'Equipe. "L'instant de verité" was its headline. The faltering start to the World Cup campaign, after their failures in Euro 2004 and in Japan and Korea had led to a loss of pride, respect and, finally, patience.

It was also the moment of truth for Ireland's manager Brian Kerr. His side have lost just two of their previous 21 fixtures but one of those defeats, an impoverished display against Switzerland, had ended their hopes of qualifying for Portugal. Confidence was high, however, although midfielder Andy Reid, much to his apparent annoyance, was dropped although he came in as first-half substitute for the injured Clinton Morrison. In came Steve Finnan and there was, as always, logic in Kerr's selection. Finnan's defensive discipline was obvious in one snap-shot. In that first period he rattled in a speculative drive and then, moments later, intercepted as Thierry Henry waited to head in Robert Pires's free-kick.

The French coach Raymond Domenech who, like Kerr, had made his way up through coaching the junior ranks, but with less success, shuffled his pack more extensively. Six changes and the abandonment of his controversial 3-5-2 formation. That had partly been brought about following pressure from the players. By changing it Domenech turned the tables. Now it was time for Henry and, in particular, Pires to perform.

Domenech gambled again by including the inexperienced Monaco pair of Sébastien Squillaci and Gaël Givet at the heart of defence. They were dissected as early as the second minute as Roy Keane slid a brilliant pass through the centre. It ran away from Morrison, who should have been quicker. The striker was again slow seconds later - this time it was from a flicked ball from Robbie Keane and Givet muscled him away. Nevertheless, France were shaken and Ireland were encouraged.

Three times Fabien Barthez clutched at dangerous crosses. Kevin Kilbane's goalbound shot was deflected wide and then a back-header from Stephen Carr almost skidded into his own net. Shay Given, desperately, pushed it away. Words were exchanged.

The Irish midfield held sway. Roy Keane was dominant, Kilbane forceful. The Everton midfielder barrelled through on the half-hour only to tumble under a challenge. He needed treatment but did not win a penalty while Morrison's header flashed wide. France's best opportunities came on the break; William Gallas's drive was held by Given before the goalkeeper did even better to palm away Pires's shot.

Soon after the break Ireland came close again. Kilbane forcefully stole the ball in midfield and fed Reid whose shot from distance was spilled by Barthez. The goalkeeper just recovered before Robbie Keane arrived. Given did better, however, holding on to Olivier Dacourt's effort, before Gallas's header sailed over as both sides continued to attack. Dangerously for Ireland, Henry started to run from deep. From one such surge the ball broke to Djibril Cissé but Kenny Cunningham was alert to block his well-struck shot. The momentum had swung a little now and it was Henry who had given it the nudge. However, back came the Irish and Barthez, after flapping at a corner, was forced to beat away Damien Duff's fierce drive.

Suddenly Barthez was appearing vulnerable and he compounded that by electing to kick at a through ball, only for it to slice, fortuitously, to a defender. The otherwise impressive French keeper may be in trouble with the authorities retrospectively when video confirms an elbow into the face of Andy O'Brien.

Somehow John O'Shea then failed to give Ireland the lead when, unmarked, he stuck out a boot from Reid's free-kick, the ball rebounding narrowly wide. Given remained sharp to thwart Henry, but it was Ireland who ended - just as they had begun - on the attack. "Tonight we have proved what a good team we are," said Kilbane. "We believed in ourselves."

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