Football

France among World Cup favourites: Ireland coach

Ireland coach O'Neill says world-class Les Bleus have improved since losing Euro final two years ago

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill believes "world class" France are capable of winning next month's World Cup after seeing them get the better of his team in a friendly yesterday morning (Singapore time).

France won 2-0 on a wet night, with Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir scoring the goals in the first half, as Ireland struggled to get near the ball at the Stade de France.

Said O'Neill: "I thought we were naturally second best against a world-class team...

"Individually, they've got a lot of talent; I think they're one of the favourites for the World Cup.

"I don't want to put pressure on the coach, far from it, but they are an excellent side.

"I think they have improved on two years ago and are better equipped than perhaps they were back then."

France's last major tournament outing two years ago saw them lose the final of Euro 2016 to Portugal in extra-time.

Yesterday's win over Ireland was the first meeting of the sides since Antoine Griezmann's goals gave hosts France a 2-1 win in Lyon in the Round of 16 of Euro 2016.

Only three France players from yesterday's game - Adil Rami, Giroud and Blaise Matuidi - also started that match in Lyon.

Two of the new faces in France's ranks are fullbacks Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe.

France coach Didier Deschamps kept faith in the pair after they both suffered serious injuries this season, and they offered glimpses that he might have made an astute decision.

They looked dangerous going forward, although they were not tested defensively.

Manchester City left-back Mendy, in particular, has remained in Deschamps' plans despite starting just five matches for his club this season.

REALLY SURPRISED

"I am really surprised not because of what they showed, but let's remember that Benjamin is just back from a serious injury," said midfielder Matuidi, who was named captain as goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was rested.

"Seeing him play without any apprehension... It's never easy to come back from a serious injury. He showed that we could rely on him."

Mendy tortured the Irish midfielders and defenders with regular bursts down the left flank, while Sidibe was also active on the right.

"We have fullbacks who like to go forward, so we give them that freedom to attack," said Matuidi.

Another player who has justified Deschamps' faith in him is Giroud.

The Chelsea striker's goal yesterday saw him move to level-fourth on France's all-time top goalscorers list on 31 goals from 72 caps.

Despite this, he has scarcely been a favourite among fans and pundits, particularly with Karim Benzema's long absence from France's ranks since his infamous sex tape scandal.

Deschamps has been criticised by the likes of Franck Ribery and Eric Cantona for not ending Benzema's exile, with Giroud becoming a proxy in the saga as he is viewed as a less talented striking option who is preferred by the France coach.

Said Deschamps: "(Giroud) has been effective with us for a long time. This is what is asked of an attacker...

"At the international level, he is part of a closed circle.

"He is a player unfairly and too often criticised.

"He does not have the qualities of other attackers, but his style of play allows the team to have sequences." - AFP, REUTERS

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