By Damian Spellman, PA
A stunning save from French keeper Mike Maignan kept the Republic of Ireland from securing a well deserved draw against World Cup finalists France.
Benjamin Pavard’s 50th-minute goal, which came after he had picked off Josh Cullen’s ill-advised pass across the edge of his own box, secured a 1-0 Group B victory to go with Friday’s 4-0 rout of the Netherlands..
The world’s third-ranked side were made to work desperately hard for the points by an Ireland team sitting 48th in FIFA’s table, two years to the day since they suffered the humiliation of a 1-0 World Cup qualifying defeat by Luxembourg at the Aviva Stadium.
France dominated possession for much of the game, but were unable to trouble keeper Gavin Bazunu until Cullen’s rare slip let Pavard in as Stephen Kenny’s men, who handled superstar Kylian Mbappe well, defended diligently and tried to hit them on the break.
Ireland’s fate in this campaign was never likely to be decided on their results against France, and their trip to Greece in June before Gibraltar head for the Aviva will be far more indicative, but Kenny will take heart from the way his young team committed to his game-plan in the face of the sternest of tests.
With wide frontmen Chiedozie Ogbene and Jason Knight dropping in when they were out of possession, the home side were compact, although they were breached with nine minutes gone when Randal Kolo Muani was played in over the top and rounded Bazunu, only for his back-heeled pass to Olivier Giroud as he was driven wide to be cut out by Collins.
The Republic were squeezed ever deeper as France turned the screw with Antoine Griezmann orchestrating, and it took a good 16th-minute block by John Egan to keep Mbappe at bay.
With what little share of the ball they were afforded, Ireland did their best to fulfil Kenny’s instructions to take risks without ever really threatening to pierce the French defence, but they needed Bazunu to spring from his line to prevent any damage after Griezmann’s 24th-minute corner had ricocheted across his six-yard box.
Griezmann instinctively stabbed wide as he attempted to turn Theo Hernandez’s 32nd-minute drive past Bazunu and then missed the target with a header from Pavard’s cross as French frustration mounted.
In the event, a team which had scored three times inside the opening 21 minutes against the Dutch left the pitch at half-time locked in a stalemate having been unable to break down a stubborn and disciplined Irish rearguard.
However, the home side faltered within five minutes of the restart to hand the visitors the lead.
Cullen intercepted Adrien Rabiot’s misplaced pass on the edge of his own penalty area, but then played the ball square, where Pavard pounced before smashing a shot past the helpless Bazunu off the underside of the crossbar.
It might have been 2-0 had Evan Ferguson in the defensive wall not got his head to Griezmann’s 55th-minute free-kick, although the Atletico Madrid star turned up on the edge of his box to block Knight’s goal-bound strike after Ogbene had burst clear down the right three minutes later.
Moussa Diaby tested Bazunu’s resolve with a swerving 69th-minute effort and the Southampton keeper repelled Rabiot’s attempt from distance six minutes later, but Molumby and substitutes James McClean and Alan Browne all went close to an equaliser in a tense conclusion.
But for Maignan, who had seconds earlier clawed the ball from underneath his crossbar, Collins would have snatched a famous draw at the death.
FT | A valiant performance but a narrow defeat for our boys tonight. #COYBIG | #WeAreOne | #IRLFRA pic.twitter.com/tDPqYHWIBi
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) March 27, 2023