World Cup – Anelka puts France in driving seat

Nicolas Anelka‘s deflected goal gave France a 1-0 win against Republic of Ireland at Croke Park in their World Cup play-off first leg.

The Chelsea striker ensured the 2006 World Cup runners-up enter the home leg in Paris as big favourites, scoring the only goal on 72 minutes – although his shot needed a cruel deflection off Sean St Ledger to beat Irish goalkeeper Shay Given.

The return fixture will have added spice following a melee after the final whistle, with Ireland midfielder Keith Andrews the leading protagonist.

Raymond Domenech‘s side deserved their victory after dominating the second period, and Giovanni Trapattoni will have to instill his charges with greater attacking ambition if they are to achieve a famous victory at the Stade de France.

Trapattoni named 10 of his starting 11 on Friday, but left it until the last minute before plumping for Liam Lawrence ahead of Aiden McGeady on the right side of midfield, and the Stoke City player had a starring role in the first half.

Given hit a long clearance in the 28th minute that Kevin Doyle flicked on to Robbie Keane inside the box. The Ireland captain’s close range shot was parried by Hugo Lloris but the rebound fell to Lawrence, whose shot went wide off the heel of Bacary Sagna with the goal gaping.

Sagna’s touch notwithstanding, Lawrence should still have scored with the goalkeeper stranded, and his miss will go down as a key moment in the tie.

In the 11th minute, Andre-Pierre Gignac put the ball in the net only to see his effort disallowed. Hesitant Irish defending had allowed a long ball to bounce through to the striker, who was flagged offside as he lofted the ball past Given.

Ireland’s much-maligned central midfield duo of Andrews and Glenn Whelan performed their usual unfashionable job, crowding France, denying them space and time on the ball.

The visitors were restricted to half-chances, such as a speculative Yoann Gourcuff effort straight at Given, and a Gignac shot wide from the edge of the box.

Domenech’s 4-3-3 formation did not get the best out of Thierry Henry, whose devastating goal threat was effectively neutralised by his position wide on the left, or delivering set pieces from deep.

While Henry often drifted to the left for Arsenal, he used his licence to roam much more freely than in the national team. Baffling, given the France captain’s status as his country’s record goalscorer.

His one first-half opportunity came after he lost possession to Andrews, only for the Blackburn man to dawdle and return the ball to Henry who volleyed well wide.

However, the visitors stepped up the pace after the break, as Lassana Diarra went close with a long-range volley after 56 minutes.

Midway through the second period, a Richard Dunne slip allowed Patrice Evra to race through onto the through ball. He reached the ball a split-second ahead of the onrushing Given but left his leg in and made the most of minimal contact.

Referee Felix Brych said no penalty – it would have been a harsh award, but it was a close-run thing.

But the breakthrough was not long in coming. Anelka, who spent much of the night dropping deep, was allowed space to come forward and his shot left Given with no chance following its cruel touch off St Ledger.

Gignac had a golden opportunity to effectively end the tie when the ball fell to him after an Irish defensive mix-up, but the Toulouse striker contrived to put the ball out for a throw when presented with a virtually open goal.

Ireland might have levelled late on after Eric Abidal gave the ball away to substitute Leon Best. The Coventry City man found Keane who helped the ball on to Whelan, whose shot was superbly saved at close range by Lloris.


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