Eileen Gleeson. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland insist they aren't just making up the numbers but French test daunting nonetheless

Ireland kick off their Euro 2025 qualifying campaign away to France in Metz tonight.

FRANCE WILL ALWAYS have a resonance for Irish women’s football: it was here the great Anne O’Brien first made her name, joining Stade de Reims to become the first woman from either Ireland or the UK to play professional football in Europe. 

O’Brien became a trophy-laden legend of the game in France and Italy, and yet she only played four times for Ireland. It seems Ireland decided the finances and logistics of getting her over for matches wasn’t worth the cost, and so her career stands as another emblem of Irish football’s awesome power to hold itself back. 

Happily, the current squad have ensured the FAI can’t get away with that nowadays, but now we have other forces conspiring against us. 

This time it’s another fiendish Uefa draw. After Stephen Kenny’s dreams of leading Ireland to Euro 2024 were ended by landing France and the Netherlands, Eileen Gleeson’s ambitions of a front-door entry into Euro 2025 have been dealt an enormous setback by being flung in with France, England, and Sweden. All three are in the top six of the Fifa world rankings.

Ireland do at least have the guarantee of a play-off thanks to their Nations League campaign, but that’s a long way from anyone’s mind at the moment. 

“I haven’t even looked towards the playoff, it’s not even in the back of my mind”, says Denise O’Sullivan. “The mindset going into this is to do well in these games. Every game is going to be a final for us. It’s a massive task. We’re not here to make up the numbers, we’re here to do well and compete against these teams.”

Their vision of competing is replete with a healthy dollop of realism. Both O’Sullivan and Gleeson spoke yesterday of having to be comfortable without the ball, given France are likely to hog it. Though Gleeson said Ireland’s ambition is to win the game, O’Sullivan admitted that a draw would be a good result.

France are coached by Herve Renard, he of the crisp white shirts, deep tan and megawatt smile, recently seen haranguing his Saudi Arabian players at half-time of what became a historic victory over Argentina. He subsequently took over the French women’s team after the acrid reign of Corinne Diacre, and led them to the quarter finals of the World Cup, beaten in an epic shootout by hosts Australia. He then tasted another high-level defeat when Spain beat France 2-0 in the inaugural Nations League final.

Renard is sticking around for the Olympics this summer, but is not going to renew his contract: instead he wants to return to the men’s game for a crack at the 2026 World Cup. This fact is probably enough to rule him out of the ever-vacant Ireland job, but the travelling press double-checked. Renard hasn’t had any contact from the FAI, and hinted at regret at divulging his future plans in the first place. (Marc Canham has travelled to Metz with the Irish squad, so he should have little difficulty in establishing contact if he so wished.)

Renard insists his future has not been a distraction, and all focus is on winning later tonight. (He expressed his commitment to winning by telling journalists that, were he to arrange an exhibition game in the press room, he’d want to beat us.) Ireland last played France just over a year ago, at Tallaght Stadium before the team left for the World Cup. That game finished 3-0 in what was a comfortable French win, but Renard warned against an Irish side with the experience of the World Cup under their belts along with the confidence of topping their Nations League group.

“Ireland are a very good team with strong organisation”, said Renard. “They are very efficient in set pieces with McCabe and [Louise] Quinn, and O’Sullivan between the lines. We know everything about this team, we respect them and we have to be at 100% to be able to win this game.”

herve-renard Herve Renard speaks to the media. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

His namesake Wendie, a brilliant centre-half with just the eight Champions League winners’ medals, is fit again after injury, but Renard cautioned against throwing her into action, so it may be the case she sits out today’s game.

Ireland have a fully-fit squad to choose from, and, like France, have plenty of options at centre-back, with Aston Villa’s Anna Patten in contention for a debut after her international clearance was approved. Gleeson moved to a back four in the most recent window and it produced an encouraging draw away to Italy and a dismal defeat to Wales. Denise O’Sullivan missed the games through injury, but didn’t agree with the downbeat reviews of the Welsh game. 

“I wouldn’t say we struggled, to be quite honest”, she replied. “I watched both games and you can take a lot of positives away, you can take some things that we need to work on.”

It will be interesting to see whether Gleeson reverts to a back five tonight, given her many options and the opposition’s many threats. These include France’s all-time record goalscorer Eugénie Le Sommer, the fit-again Lyon striker Delphine Cascarino, and Marie-Antoinette Katoto of Paris Saint-Germain. 

While Gleeson was recruited to help the team make their next step and evolve from the opposition-dictated containment principles of Vera Pauw, a relapse into that approach might actually serve Ireland pretty well.

But that must be married with a genuine threat on the counter, and for that, Ireland should try to get Katie McCabe as high up the pitch as they can.

The French Federation are anticipating a crowd of roughly 18,000 at the Stade Saint-Symphorien, the home of FC Metz, which has a capacity for approximately 10,000 more. Regardless of the atmosphere in the stands, Ireland are in for a fearsome opening test.

And things don’t get much easier from here.

France (Possible XI): Pauline Peyraud-Magnin; Maëlle Lakrar, Griedge Mbock Bathy, Ève Périsset, Sakina Karchaoui; Sandie Toletti, Kenza Dali; Selma Bacha, Kadidiatou Diani, Antoinette Katoto; Delphine Cascarino.

Ireland (Possible XI): Courtney Brosnan; Heather Payne; Louise Quinn, Caitlin Hayes, Aoife Mannion; Katie McCabe; Megan Connolly, Ruesha Littlejohn; Denise O’Sullivan, Lucy Quinn; Kyra Carusa 

 On TV: RTE Two; KO 8.10pm 

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