Karim Benzema caused a stir back in September. "I do not really try my hardest in a French shirt," Real Madrid's new signing admitted to the world in a statement that poses two major questions. Why on earth would he go public with such an admission? And what exactly is it that stops the £30 million man from extending himself for France?
In many ways Benzema is symptomatic of the enigma the Republic of Ireland face in the first leg of the World Cup play-off at Croke Park in six days' time, and then again in the second leg in Paris the following Wednesday. Les Bleus have enough talent, and particularly attacking talent, to win any game, but there is a je ne sais quoi about Raymond Domenech's side, an uncertainty as to whether they will play with a firm and communal intent, or merely proceed with a shrug of the shoulders.
It is a doubt, a question mark, that hangs heavy over this play-off game. Because if France are individually and collectively motivated for these games, they are extremely likely – with the best will in the world towards Giovanni Trapattoni and his side – to progress to South Africa. The puzzle, however, comes if France are not fully interested, or indeed bang on their game.
This assumes that Ireland maintain the level of commitment and organisation they managed throughout the group stages. While not quite a given, it is difficult to see them dropping their standards.
What Trapattoni desires of his players in a green shirt is clear and simple and, at this point in the Italian's tenure, his starting XI is probably a matter of reflex. Expect a back four of John O'Shea, Richard Dunne, Sean St Ledger and Kevin Kilbane, a sitting central midfield of Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews, Liam Lawrence and Damien Duff occupying the wide berths, with Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle up front. There are unlikely to be any surprises in terms of selection or attitude. Ireland will be compact, hard to break down and infused with the occasional intent to have a real go at the French.
That last trait is something that doesn't really get much notice, but it's a firm part of Ireland's plan. Trapattoni recognises that the excruciating pace of English football can be difficult for continental European countries to live with if it's applied at the right time. Even though many of France's players are used to the helter-skelter world of the Premier League, you would imagine it's a plan Trapattoni will instruct his players to follow in the first 20 minutes at Croke Park. After that, Ireland will turn it on in a five-minute burst here and there.
A player of Benzema's quality is likely to be only on the bench for France. He did not start the qualifiers against the Faroe Islands, Romania or Serbia and only played against Austria in the last group game because Domenech decided to give his squad players a run. Unless injury strikes in the coming week, France are likely to start with Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Toulouse's André-Pierre Gignac up front.
In midfield, Bordeaux's clever playmaker Yoann Gourcuff will play just in front of the solid pairing of Jérémy Toulalan and Alou Diarra, while Bacary Sagna, William Gallas, Eric Abidal and Patrice Evra will constitute France's back four.
It is, on paper, an attacking formation, but there has been a sense that the front three play too far apart. "When you look at the players offensively it is unbelievable," said Arsène Wenger recently. "We have Benzema at Real Madrid, Henry at Barcelona, Anelka at Chelsea, Ribéry at Bayern Munich, Gourcuff is the playmaker for Bordeaux. How is it possible this team doesn't score more goals?"
Against Romania at the Stade de France, they enjoyed 70 per cent of the possession but managed just one goal in 90 minutes. And that, in essence, is their problem. It all doesn't seem to gel as it should, despite the big names and despite the talent.
For Ireland, the need to keep a clean sheet on Saturday is every bit as crucial as scoring at the other end. "It is very important we don't concede," says Ireland's assistant manager, Marco Tardelli, "because in games like this, one goal means two if you let one in at home. Ideally, we'd like to win 1-0, but not conceding is also vital." Manage that, and Ireland will have more than a decent chance in Paris.
And then we will really see if those in blue shirts are willing to try their hardest.Reuse content