Football players are very superstitious. As France travelled to Lyon yesterday to face the Republic of Ireland in a Round of 16 tie at Euro 2016, Les Bleus will know that l’Olympique Lyonnais have not lost at the beautiful Parc OL stadium since the opening of the stadium in January.
It is a good omen even if the two Lyonnais of the squad, Samuel Umtiti and Christophe Jallet, will start on the bench on Sunday. But the winning spirit, the unbeaten feeling will be there.
This should be the game where France really kick off their tournament; it all starts now. The group stage was a rehearsal, in which the French played with apprehension, fear and pressure weighing heavily on their shoulders.
Didier Deschamps’ men never really looked comfortable against Romania, Albania or Switzerland and, although they did win their first two matches and drew the third, there was no panache, no flair, no style and not much substance in their performances.
Dimitri Payet bailed them out against Romania, as he did against Albania with help from Antoine Griezmann. Paul Pogba tried hard against Switzerland but overall it has not been enough for the pre-tournaments favourites.
On the other hand, maybe it is a good thing that they haven’t peaked too early. If you look back at the World Cup in 2014, for example, France were superb in the first two group stage matches before running out of steam later in the competition, despite a good display against Germany in the quarterfinals. This time, they will hope to gradually get stronger.
They have had a week to work between the Switzerland match and the Ireland encounter and Deschamps has insisted that the players have to raise their game. The head coach will field his strongest starting XI on Sunday with Payet, Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud all back in the lineup after being on the bench last weekend.
Matuidi’s return to the left of a midfield three means that Pogba, who played so much better against the Swiss in what is his position at club level, will go back to the right. The Juventus man will be a key player in this game and needs to step up on Sunday, as do Matuidi and Griezmann.
Five Irish players — Keane, Glenn Whelan, John O’Shea, Shay Given and Aiden McGeady — and six from France — Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Patrice Evra, Bacary Sagna and Moussa Sissoko — were part of that game and surely haven’t forgotten anything about it.
It will certainly be an extra bit of motivation for Ireland but France will have to focus on themselves. It is getting serious now and they can’t get unsettled by the ghosts of the past.
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