They say (whoever 'they' are) that it is the mark of a good goalkeeper that he can be out of the game for large periods of time but can still make a crucial save when called upon. By those standards, Shay Given is a giant. Idle until the 35th minute, he reacted well to a blistering effort from Gallas and touched it over the bar. Two minutes later he saved from Robert Pires. His only other significant involvement was in the 78th minute, when Henry was through with only the keeper to beat. How many goalkeepers can say they have come out best in such a situation?
In front of him, Shay Given had the fluid partnership of Kenny Cunningham and Andy O'Brien. These two displayed the sort of composure and understanding that would have one thinking they grew up playing football together. That Given was relatively quiet is a testament in part to his central defenders.
John O'Shea was solid defensively, but he gives the ball away far too easily. He needs to understand (or be told) that as a member of the back line, your number one priority is to break up opposing attacks, and your number two priority is to remove the ball from the danger area. Nowhere in the defender's manual does it recommend that you try to run the ball out of defence. Put in the tackle, make the simple pass. Job done. To be fair to O'Shea, he was poorly treated in the first half, when Robert Pires performed his dying swan act and won an undeserved free. Incidentally, am I the only one who finds it strange that Pires, Henry etc are accused of cheating by Irish commentators, while Duff, Kilbane, and Robbie Keane “make the most” of contact, and “engineer” frees. It's not pleasant when either team does it. Is there an Irish commentator with the courage to say as much?
Aside from wrapping himself around Henry in the 9th minute, Stephen Carr put in his best performance in a green shirt in years. His timing was almost perfect, and he combined very well with Steve Finnan. Carr and Finnan are an excellent double-act on the right. They both have excellent crossing abilities and both have experience at full back and orthodox winger. If it ain't broke…
Across the pitch, Damien Duff was engaging in his own personal duel with his Chelsea colleague, Gallas. An attacking full-back, Gallas provided a stern test for Duff's defensive abilities, which we all know is not the strongest part of his game. That said, Duff has obviously been working on this and while Gallas got in a few crosses and one shot, Duff was the more dangerous of the two.
Up front, Robbie Keane worked tirelessly but was ineffective. Andy Reid had a half-chance, but we would have been better off with Clinton (never thought those words would pass my lips.) The search for strikers continues…
I skipped over the other Keane in midfield. While the much-vaunted “great engine” has slightly less horsepower than before, the drive is still there. Keane's role against France was akin to a conductor conducting an orchestra. With the younger and faster “Zinedine” Kilbane beside him, Keane was free to direct the play as he saw fit, deploying his troops where the enemy seemed weakest, and weighing in with his quota of hard hits. He also gave us the most amusing moment of the game, with what Janet Jackson would probably refer to as a “wardrobe malfunction”.
On the run of play, the Irish were the better team. Crosses from Finnan and Kilbane in the first ten minutes gave Barthez no time to get settled in. The French shot stopper was back to his best,
and the figure that was so elegantly chipped by Paulo Di Canio seemed like a distant memory. He was in command of the penalty area and claimed one cross after another. After just over an hour, he pulled off another excellent save from Damien Duff when a lesser player would have been beaten.
The aftermath was noteworthy also. Under previous regimes, such a result might have lead to hysteria, a point that was mentioned once or twice during “Saipangate”. This time around, there was the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. A draw with the second-best team in the world was a reasonable expectation and just another step on the road to Germany.