Matt Spiro: France yet to “play their game” as guilt over Thierry Henry's handball lives on

France-based football writer looks ahead to the Lyon clash between Ireland and the hosts

France, Dimitri Payet,

France's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Euro 2016 Group A soccer match between France and Albania at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, France, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

“Whatever happens on Sunday I’ll be happy at the end,” a French journalist told me today. “Of course I want us to win, but if Ireland knock us out I’ll be happy for their fans. I’d rather lose to them than Germany or someone.”

Such is the impact Ireland’s supporters have made in France this generous sentiment is shared by many. At a time when the newspapers have been full of depressing stories about hooligans, murdered policemen and social unrest, the Irish have been a breath of fresh air. “Leave us these passionate fans a little longer,” pleaded L’Equipe’s chief football writer Vincent Duluc on Thursday. “That our country will host these lovely people day and night for another week brings deep happiness.”

Ever since I’ve been living in Paris (14 years), I’ve sensed a genuine warmth and fondness for the Irish. Since November 18, 2009, that affection, and even admiration, has been accompanied by a sense of indebtedness. The French still feel guilty about reaching the World Cup on the back of Thierry Henry’s handball and many would find defeat on Sunday easier to swallow because of that.

A videograb of Thierry Henry's handball that led to France's goal: Sky Sports/INPHO

“An old score to settle,” was L’Equipe’s headline on Thursday, almost encouraging the Irish to get their own back in Lyon. The next day, the sports daily focused even more sharply of Les Bleus’ dark deed. “Ireland want their revenge,” the front page claimed. Three further pages then dissected the incident that occurred six-and-a-half years ago. Partner TV channel L’Equipe 21 showed the entire match again on Friday evening.

As the Irish camp does its best to play down the ‘revenge’ factor, the French are talking about little else. “If I were Ireland coach I’d show my players footage of the handball before the game,” said legendary coach Guy Roux. “Of course it’ll motivate them,” warned Alou Diarra, who played for France that day. “The Irish still haven’t digested it. They want revenge. They have pride, character and above all a good memory.”

I’m not suggesting the French want to lose – of course they don’t – but it does feel as though the country would welcome some kind of closure.

Not that anybody here thinks Didier Deschamps’ team will lose. There is a clear respect for Ireland’s supporters and the determination shown by the players, yet few are worrying about Robbie Brady’s crosses, Wes Hoolahan’s dribbles or Shane Long’s nose for goal. “France has avoided the worst scenario,” reassured Duluc in his Thursday column. ”With Ireland to be followed by England or Iceland, we won’t face an ‘Everest’ until the semis.” Ex-Rangers boss Paul Le Guen was equally confident, saying: “They have a veritable spirit but not our talent. We’re better than them, we have better players. We don’t need to adapt our game. We need to play our game. That’s all.”

Alan Lynam and Stephen Flannery from Offaly with Shane Coleman from Cork ©INPHO/James Crombie

Sounds easy. Except that France haven’t succeeded in “playing their game” once yet this tournament. They laboured against Romania and needed Dimitri Payet’s masterful intervention to win the day in the final minute, long after both Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba had been hauled off. Those two have been widely tipped to become the star men for the hosts in this competition, but the Atletico man looked desperately jaded and Pogba seemed more intent on showing off than helping the team.

Both were controversially dropped for the second game against Albania, only to be offered a reprieve after their replacements Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman failed to convince. Pogba came on at half-time and injected life into a dour display. Griezmann’s introduction after the hour proved even more telling: he broke the deadlock on 90 minutes. The jubilant scenes after Payet’s added-time second were marred by revelations the following day that Pogba had apparently made an offensive gesture towards to media stand. Claims by the Juventus midfielder that it was just a dance routine were swallowed by no-one, bar Pogba’s agent and, apparently, Deschamps.

France's Paul Pogba, center, attends a training session at the stadium Lille Metropole in Villeneuve dAscq, near Lille, France, Saturday, June 18, 2016. France faces Switzerland in a Group A match on Sunday June 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The controversy was eerily reminiscent of 2012, when Samir Nasri celebrated scoring against England by mouthing expletives to the French press. Pogba, however, does not carry Nasri’s baggage, and the 23-year-old has apparently been forgiven already. Indeed, if the media did have an issue there were no signs of it when they lauded his performance in the final group game, a 0-0 draw with Switzerland. “Pogba, the one real positive,” announced Le Parisien newspaper after another mediocre French display.

Pogba’s improved display may have been due to a positional change. With Moussa Sissoko replacing the left-footed Blaise Matuidi, who was rested, Pogba switched from the right to the left side of the midfield three. That is where he plays with Juventus and his clear understanding with club-mate Patrice Evra was apparent.

Might Deschamps be tempted to keep him there? Certainly Matuidi’s tired displays are a cause for concern, and Sissoko did well against Switzerland. But the PSG midfielder is held in very high esteem by Deschamps. My feeling is France will line up with the same eleven that started in the opener against Romania. Should the performance turn out to be equally as flat, Ireland have a real chance.