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A bleak reminder of where Ireland are at and more talking points from Paris friendly

The Boys in Green were outclassed by a far superior team at the Stade de France.

Ireland fans during the game.
Ireland fans during the game.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. A bleak reminder of where Ireland are at

BOTH MARTIN O’NEILL and team captain Seamus Coleman pointed afterwards to Ireland’s failure to keep the ball amid a disappointing 2-0 loss and that flaw was there for all to see.

According to RTÉ, France had 83% of the possession in the first half and Didier Deschamps’ side looked a class apart for much of the game. By the end, amid all the substitutions and disruption that made the second half a decidedly stop-start affair, that figure was only down slightly to 76%.

The Boys in Green started with seven Premier League players, but at least four of those are not automatic starters for their respective clubs.

In addition, the away side also featured two players who began the 2017-18 campaign in League One, while both Callum O’Dowda and Jon Walters missed a significant portion of their clubs’ seasons through injury.

France, meanwhile, despite keeping a number of near-certain World Cup starters on the bench, were able to put out a starting XI that included many players from Europe’s elite clubs, such as Kylian Mbappe (PSG), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona) and Blaise Matuidi (Juventus).

So in some ways, complaining that Ireland didn’t try to play in a more ambitious fashion feels a little like castigating a lower-league Premier League side for parking the bus against Man City or Liverpool.

But that said, it is less than two years since Ireland gave a better account of themselves against France at Euro 2016, while it’s less than nine years since they famously dominated the French team at the Stade de France but lost out owing to the infamous Thierry Henry handball incident.

In isolation, you could dismiss last night’s game as ‘only a friendly’ and point to the inexperience of several members of the Boys in Green’s squad.

What’s concerning is that the fixture was part of a consistent pattern under Martin O’Neill. The performance was indistinguishable from almost all of the away matches in the World Cup qualifiers — the main difference being that France are better equipped to capitalise on their dominance in possession than Georgia, Serbia or Wales.

The personnel may be somewhat different but the outcome tends to be the same, with Ireland chasing their opponents around for long spells and hoping to get a break from a set piece or long punt upfield á la Shane Long’s famous winner against Germany.

What’s demoralising from an Irish perspective is how much better France’s largely second-string outfit were.

Two years ago, when the sides met, O’Neill’s men at least caused problems and even led for a considerable period. Since then, France have seemingly improved, while Ireland appear to have gone backwards.

How much of the Boys in Green’s lack of coherence or any sign of an obvious gameplan beyond booting it up the pitch is down to O’Neill rather than a simple lack of talent is debatable.

It’s worth noting though that the style of football wasn’t much better under Giovanni Trapattoni. The last Irish manager who frequently tried to play with some sense of adventure was Steve Staunton, and that did not turn out so well.

2. A night to remember for Graham Burke among others

Graham Burke with Benjamin Pavard Ireland’s Graham Burke with Benjamin Pavard of France. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While this match won’t live long in the memory for the football on display, it was an unforgettable night for some of those involved.

Shaun Williams, Derrick Williams and Graham Burke all made their international debuts, and at the very least, got some invaluable experience under their belt.

In replacing Callum O’Dowda on 70 minutes, Burke became the first League of Ireland player to line out for the Boys in Green since Joe Gamble in a 2007 friendly against Ecuador during the Staunton era.

The 24-year-old immediately slotted in wide on the left, with James McClean going up front in place of the departed Shane Long.

While he didn’t get too many chances to replicate the kind of form that he has frequently been showing Shamrock Rovers, it will have been a proud moment for the Dubliner.

It is less than three years since Burke was let go by Aston Villa and only a little over one year since he was deemed surplus to requirements by League Two outfit Notts County.

Burke has shown admirable resolve by resurrecting his career in the League of Ireland, as well as representing proof that participation British football is not necessarily essential when it comes to international football.

3. What is Declan Rice’s best position?

When Declan Rice made his international debut against Turkey last March, he played the majority of the match in defence before switching to midfield in the second half.

Last night against France, the opposite occurred, with the West Ham starlet playing a considerable portion of the game in midfield.

Like the rest of the Ireland team, he struggled to make an impact last night, and the game served as a reminder that as promising as the teenager looks, it is not appropriate to get too carried away just yet as he remains a raw talent with plenty of experience still to accrue.

On a positive note, there are not many 19-year-olds getting the chance to pit their wits against the array of world-class stars that feature in the France side.

Rice, despite not having a particularly good match, must view last night as another important step in his development as a footballer.

One question that remains inconclusive is where his best position is. The London-born player has featured in midfield for the Ireland U21s and on occasion, for the Hammers, but the majority of his games at senior level have been at centre-back.

Martin O’Neill told RTÉ before the match last night that Rice has “yet to decide what his best position is,” and added that his club will “probably make that decision for him”.

While it’s no harm in him experimenting a little at this early stage in his career, any footballer would ideally avoid being a utility man for a sustained period, so it’s important that Rice does definitively settle on a position sooner rather than later.

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Paul Fennessy

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