AND SO IRELAND arrive in Paris to face the world’s best player and arguably the world’s best team without Evan Ferguson and another four of his potential replacements along with both of their right wing-backs, one of whom is the captain.


We are not even in ‘free hit’ territory as Ireland need at least a draw to desperately plug the gaps of a qualifying campaign already holed beneath the water line. 


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Stephen Kenny during Ireland's training session on the eve of the match.

Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Stephen Kenny agreed this is the greatest challenge of his managerial career, and the air of trepidation around Ireland is so palpable that Thierry Henry could reach out and grab it with his left hand.

A quick comparison. Since France won the World Cup in 2018, they’ve been back to the final and lost on penalties, while Ireland’s only competitive wins in that time have come against Gibraltar (three times), Georgia, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Scotland, and Armenia. 

Kenny rallied his players at training yesterday by urging them to enjoy training, reminding them that it was great to be here. Ireland are at least in the home of Panglossian optimism. 

Here, of course, is the Parc des Princes, with the Stade de France occupied by France and New Zealand ahead of tomorrow’s opening game of the Rugby World Cup. Rugby is the dominant story here: Kenny and Antoine Griezmann were both asked about it at yesterday’s press conferences, while it was the very first question asked of Didier Deschamps. 

But even in the shade of the Rugby World Cup, it’s hot. Temperatures hit 35 degrees yesterday afternoon, and it is forecast to be in the very high twenties by the 8.45pm kick-off time. 

But the heat is only a minor challenge, really. Ireland did a very good job of shackling the French in March, albeit much of their honest work was undone by Josh Cullen’s giveaway and Benjamin Pavard’s long-range screamer. The game was notable for the blunted output of Kylian Mbappe, in which he was held without a shot on target, something only two other sides have managed across 2023 thus far.

But much of that rested on the brilliant man-marking of Seamus Coleman, who misses out through injury. Matt Doherty, meanwhile, is suspended, meaning whoever will start at right wing-back will do so out of position. Alan Browne and Jason Knight have played there for Ireland before, while Chiedozie Ogbene and Festy Ebosele have done the same for their clubs, although Kenny sees both as attackers primarily. 

Given it is a defender’s job, Kenny may choose to reposition one of his centre-halves to do the role, with Dara O’Shea the most likely. And if O’Shea is moved to Mbappe Watch, it means Shane Duffy may step right back into the starting XI for the first time since the 3-0 win over Scotland 15 months ago. 

Nathan Collins will start and Kenny is optimistic that John Egan will be fit to play. If not, he will turn to either Andrew Omobamidele (who joined up with the squad today following a family bereavement) or Darragh Lenihan. There are choices to be made at left wing-back, with Enda Stevens fit again and the likeliest to get the nod ahead of James McClean for what would also be his first Irish appearance in 15 months. 

Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight will be the midfield trio, with Chiedozie Ogbene certain to reprise his role as a right-sided attacker helping to cover Mbappe. Will Keane is the top scorer in the Championship, but Adam Idah has always been a firm favourite of Kenny’s and is the likeliest to start instead of Ferguson. Aaron Connolly has now been bumped up the pecking order to the point he will probably finish the game as a truly wildcard option off the bench. 

Ferguson’s injury withdrawal on Tuesday was dispiriting, with most of the players only learning about his injury that day. Kenny told his pre-match press conference that Ferguson didn’t actually sustain the injury in a challenge with Bruno Guimaraes after he completed his hat-trick on Saturday, as had been widely assumed. 

“It was reported that it was an injury in the game, in a challenge”, said Kenny. “That’s not the case actually. I think it’s more one he has been playing on, a patellar tendon injury, a knee injury he has had some pain in. He felt after the other night he was too sore, he just couldn’t play. When he came off he felt too sore, he felt it was too sore to dissipate. We have to respect that. It obviously was too sore and he was in too much pain.” 


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Didier Deschamps and Kylian Mbappe at the French training session.

Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

So as Ireland reckon with the injury they could least afford, France are almost at full-strength, missing only Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool. His replacement will be either William Saliba of Arsenal or Lucas Hernandez of PSG, who is back from a serious knee injury sustained at the World Cup. If Saliba gets the nod, Lucas might start at left-back instead of his more offensively-minded brother Theo. Ireland exploited the space behind Theo very well in the March game, but Lucas’ selection would make repeating that trick much more difficult. 

France’s midfield options are absurd, with Deschamps faced with the alleged problem of deciding between Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga. It seems that Olivier Giroud will retain his place up front, with Mbappe off the left and Ousmane Dembele off the right. 

Deschamps was asked by an Irish journalist about Ferguson’s absence, to which he responded by letting slip the truth about his level of preoccupation with Ireland. 

“I know he has [had fewer] appearances with his national team but with his club Crystal Palace he is a very good player.” 

Oh, to have so little to worry about. 

France (possible XI): Mike Maignan; Jules Kounde, William Saliba, Dayot Upamecano, Lucas Hernandez; Aurelien Tchouameni, Antoine Griezmann, Adrien Rabiot; Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe 

Republic of Ireland (possible XI): Gavin Bazunu; Dara O’Shea; Nathan Collins, Shane Duffy, John Egan; Enda Stevens; Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight; Chiedozie Ogbene, Adam Idah 


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