France overcome early scare against brave Ireland to reach quarterfinals
LYON, France -- Three thoughts from France's 2-1 comeback victory over Ireland on Sunday afternoon in Lyon.
1. France recover from early scare
It took three and a half games, but the real France have finally arrived at the European Championship. Rattled and trailing Ireland thanks to a second-minute Robbie Brady penalty, they were booed from the field at half-time. When France returned for the second half, they were a different team. They were a better team. And they made the Irish pay for their impertinence. The deficit was soon overturned, and when Shane Duffy was dismissed in the second half, there was no way back.
Blessed with three more days of rest than his opponents, Didier Deschamps made four changes to the team that drew with Switzerland, all widely expected. Back came Olivier Giroud, N'Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Dimitri Payet, France's unlikely, late-blooming talisman. But for all of those fresh faces, they were behind within two minutes when Paul Pogba clumsily felled Shane Long in the box and Brady made his spot-kick count.
Undaunted, France were immediately on the offensive. A Payet corner caused chaos. Antoine Griezmann headed over from a Pogba cross when he should have scored. Greizmann himself lifted a cross to Giroud, but Duffy was there to head away. It was all hands to the pumps. Pogba tried his luck from range, belting a 35-yard free kick toward the top corner, only to be foiled by an astutely positioned Darren Randolph. Ireland held their lead until the break.
There had to be changes at half-time, and Deschamps didn't hesitate to make them. Off came Kante, on came Kingsley Coman, and suddenly the French were tearing down the flanks.
Bullied by the Irish in the first half, France were far smarter in the second. Shortly after the break, James McClean zeroed in on Pogba, racing in with a sliding tackle. The Juventus midfielder waited, shimmied and left the Irishman skidding away in his wake. Moments later, Payet sprinted in from the left flank, leaving Seamus Coleman with no option but to shove him over. From the resultant free-kick, Laurent Koscielny's diving header went just wide. Then Blaise Matuidi drew a fine save from Randolph with a rasping effort from the edge of the box. The fresher legs were beginning to show.
And then it came: the inevitable conclusion to such a dramatic shift in momentum. Bacary Sagna, from the right, whipped in the cross. Griezmann, the squanderer of a fine opportunity in the first half, was in space and he was not about to waste another chance. This time his header was true. Four minutes later, France were leading. Again it was Griezmann with the finish; again the Irish defending was not what it could have been. Giroud fended off two Irish defenders to win a header, and Griezmann was perfectly placed and free to run on and blast the ball past Randolph.
Five minutes later, the game was up. After yet another nice touch from an increasingly impressive Giroud, Griezmann sprinted in search of his hat trick. Duffy never had a chance of catching him. The Everton defender lunged and caught Griezmann's ankle, earning a straight red card. With 11 men, Ireland were up against it. With 10, they were doomed. Andre-Pierre Gignac might have added more, bouncing one shot off the bar and clipping another one just wide.
France are now up and running, but how much further can they go?
2. Brave Ireland fall short
Amid the heartbreak and tears, at least the Irish know that they can have no regrets. Four years ago, they left in the group stages having offered absolutely nothing to the tournament, save for their incredible support. This year they leave not just with goodwill, but with respect. They should have beaten Sweden, they did beat Italy and, for a time, it looked as if they might do something extraordinary and beat France as well.
When Adil Rami slipped in the opening exchanges, Ireland suddenly found themselves where they were least expected to be: in the French penalty area with the ball. But before Long could think about what to do with it, he was bundled over by Pogba. It was as clear a penalty as this competition has seen, and referee Nicola Rizzoli immediately pointed to the spot. Up stepped the hero of Lille -- Brady, in front of the Irish supporters. He looked to the left and dragged the ball hard to the right. Almost too hard. Almost. As France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris hurled himself toward one post, the ball clanged off the other one and ricocheted into the back of the net. Ireland had the lead. But they had 88 minutes to defend it.
They made the game a physical battle, and they were far better suited to it than their hosts. The French tried to match their tormentors, shove for shove, foul for foul, but they just weren't as good at it. Ireland, for the most part, were getting the hits in without anyone but their quarry noticing. When the French players responded, it was like watching the kid from chess club hit the school bully across the face with a chair in front of everyone; you respected them for trying to defend themselves, but they could have been a little more subtle about it. Kante was booked for kicking McClean across the knee caps. Rami joined in by clattering Long on the halfway line. They were rattled, and Ireland knew it.
And this was not simply one-way traffic. Having repulsed a sustained French attack, Ireland might have scored again midway through the first half. Daryl Murphy's shot was parried by Lloris, but Jeff Hendrick could only hit the weakest of shots back at the France No. 1. Just before the break, Brady floated a free-kick into the box and Duffy headed wide of the post.
Ireland didn't simply sit back after half-time, they continued to create chances. McClean was set free down the left by Hendrick and his low cross was just inches away from Long. But just short of the hour, their resistance was broken, and it was downhill from there.
3. The tournament comes alive for France
There was an unexpected response to Brady's second-minute opening goal. It began behind the goal of Lloris, but it swiftly spread around the stadium. French supporters were on their feet. They were applauding their team, waving their flags, urging them on.
It was a very different scene from the one in Marseille, where France scored late to top Albania in the group stage. In the match versus the Albanians, the French supporters grew steadily more tense as the game unfolded.
Here, there were jeers at half-time, but that was to be expected. When the second half began again, the positivity returned. Perhaps this is what was needed to wake the French supporters up. Perhaps now, the fans will really start to believe that their team can do this.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.