As the dust settles on the 2022 World Cup and one of the most memorable international games of all-time, attention in Europe shifts to the upcoming qualifiers for Euro 2024 in Germany.
Qualification begins in just over 3 months’ time, as Slovenia travels to Kazakhstan on March 23rd 2023.
For fans of the Irish national team, there was ample opportunity to view two of our four opponents in the group stages: France and the Netherlands. Both sides had extended runs at the tournament.
France lost the final in a heartbreaking penalty shootout after rallying from 2–0 down in the last 15 minutes. The Dutch suffered a similar fate, losing to Argentina on penalties in the quarter final.
With the performances of both sides in the tournament, there is a lot of pessimism about Ireland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2024. With just 2 qualifying slots available in group B in a group containing the Netherlands and France, it will take a special effort from the group to make it through.
Coupled with the Netherlands and France, Greece and Gibraltar make up the rest of the group. The Greeks are guaranteed at least a playoff place, owing to a strong performance in the 2022–23 Nations League.
With this in mind, we can afford a deeper early dive into Ireland’s opponents in the group, starting with the French.
How many teams in world football could continue to function with the Ballon d’Or winner? Especially when that Ballon d’Or winner was having a stellar run of form like Karim Benzema.
Alongside Benzema on the sidelines were Presnel Kimpembe, Christopher Nkunku, N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, and starting left back Lucas Hernandez, who picked up a significant ACL injury in their opening game. Alas, he is likely to miss the opening game against Ireland as a result.
Even with a large number of players called up late to the tournament, not one Ireland player would make it into the France squad. Players like Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani, by no means household names, were extremely useful when Deschamps boldly made 2 first-half substitutions in the final.
Even though neither may feature when Ireland open their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign against France, it speaks volumes about the extent of depth the French can afford.
The overriding assessment of the French team was, instead of being the overpowering steamroller many analysts expected, they were a quietly efficient team throughout the tournament. While the stardom of Kylian Mbappe is unquestionable after his hat-trick in the final, just the second player after Geoff Hurst in 1966 to fulfil this feat, most of the French wins in the tournament were the result of collective efficiency rather than relying on Mbappe.
Players like Adrien Rabiot, held in similar esteem amongst. French fans as Jeff Hendrick amongst our own, known for a lazy style of play that might not suit the void left behind by Kanté and Pogba’s exclusions.
Yet Rabiot held his own throughout the tournament with impressive performances, an effective player to help the French play through the lines. Antoine Griezemann was also a player reborn in a number 8 role, showing glimpses of his peak days at Atlético Madrid.
If we look at the French team that lined up in the World Cup final, versus how we can expect them to line up at full strength, we see a number of differences and a team of greater quality on paper, and far greater depth on the bench:
It remains to be seen if some of France’s older players, like Olivier Giroud and longtime captain Hugo Lloris, will return to the national team after the defeat. However, with Euro 2024 just 18 months away due to the winter World Cup, it is safe to expect that they will return.
The sudden retirement of Karim Benzema is by no means detrimental to France, though certainly it is a setback; Giroud (France’s new record goalscorer with 53 goals and counting) or Thuram are worthy replacements with the talent around them in the squad to feed them the ball in goal scoring positions.
While Ireland can rightly laud some of the exciting young players coming through – Gavin Bazunu (20) and Nathan Collins (21) the most promising among them – France continues to be a conveyor belt of exciting young players. Eduardo Camavinga (20) and Ibrahima Konaté (23) are just two of the 14 French players in
the 26 man squad aged 25 or younger. In every facet of the game, the task facing Ireland is extremely daunting.
Trying to predict how Ireland will play this France team in 3 months time is quite difficult; nonetheless, based on the squad being at full strength, this is a very desirable starting XI that draws on promising young players and players that Stephen Kenny has trusted in big matches.
Playing both Doherty and Coleman makes sense, faced with the threat of Mbappé on the left. If the World Cup is anything to go by, France with Mbappé and Giroud in the starting XI is not a recipe for a high press.
Playing Collins, Egan, and O’Shea makes sense with their ability to play out from the back. In attack, Ogbene and Obafemi offer pace which Ireland can use to try and press the French back on occasion.
The task facing Ireland in taking on France is an extremely daunting one; the only saving grace being back in 2009, when Ireland played a superior French team off the park in the Stade de France in a 1–0 win in normal time, only to have their hearts broken late in extra time by Thierry Henry’s arm and losing out on a place at the World Cup.
Ireland open their campaign at home to France on 27th March, and will travel to France for the return fixture in round 4 on 7th September.
Tárlach Ó’Ruiséil, The Green Machíne Podcast