Having come away from Dublin’s Croke Park on Saturday with a vital 1-0 win over European Zone play-off rivals Republic of Ireland, courtesy of a deflected Nicolas Anelka strike, France have taken a convincing stride towards qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Back in their base camp at Clairefontaine by the following evening, Raymond Domenech and his men were already deeply immersed in preparations for Wednesday’s second leg at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. Looking ahead to that decisive encounter, Manchester United and Les Bleus left-back Patrice Evra spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Patrice, how are you all feeling the day after the win over Republic of Ireland?
Patrice Evra: More than anything we’re tired and in recovery mode. As soon as the final whistle went we started focusing on Wednesday’s game. We know that we’re only at half-time in this tie. The hardest part is still to come.
You say you’re only at half-time in this play-off tie, but the second half is going to last 90 minutes, not 45...
That’s true, a lot can happen. We did our job well in the first leg and it’s down to us not to let that go to waste on Wednesday. When people tell me we’ve got one foot in South Africa, I tell them that for the moment both my feet are still here, in Clairefontaine. We won’t be working out what score we need in the return match. We want to win, end of discussion.
Did the game pan out as you’d expected?
Totally, perhaps even a bit too much. That’s why I prefer how we played in the second half rather than the first. In the first 45 minutes we were too concerned with meeting the physical challenge and neglected to get the ball down enough. I’ve heard some people say that they were expecting the Irish to put us under more pressure, but I think that would be taking something away from our performance. We were expecting the challenge and we rose to it well.
So, was that the key in the second half of this match using skill to combat their physical approach?
No offense to this Republic of Ireland team, but we’ve got a lot more quality. We know that and in my opinion that’s key. But build-up play is not just about passing the ball and not just about pushing forward. You must get the ball down and pass it while going forward. It’s as simple as that and we have that ability.
Does this win create a risk of complacency ahead of the return match?
There’s enough experience in this team to avoid any overconfidence. Having played in a good few [UEFA] Champions League semi-finals, I know that even after a win like that in the first leg, the second leg’s still 50-50.
In your view, what will be the most important period of the second leg?
The start of the match. It would be good to score a very early goal to hurt their morale a bit more.
Hugo Lloris put in a superb display at Croke Park. As a defender, did you congratulate him or apologise for him having to make so many saves?
We don’t have to say sorry, a keeper is there to do his job. During the warm-up I went over to see him and said, ‘you’re going to win this match for us’. I’d been thinking about his performance against Liverpool [in this season’s Champions League group stage] and I know he’s a great goalkeeper. What’s more, Steve (Mandanda) is also a great keeper. Hugo’s the No1 at the moment but it could soon be Steve. But I’m pleased that it went so well for Hugo.
In the build-up to these matches, there’s been a lot of talk about the role of France’s experienced players. Did you feel like you had a special responsibility?
It’s obvious, you have to be able to shoulder responsibility when the team needs you. The fans know that we play for big European clubs and expect a lot of us. After a bad performance we would be the first ones singled out and that’s normal. We therefore put the national team before our clubs, and that serves as an example to the younger players.
You stuck your neck out a few months ago when criticising the fans in the Stade de France for booing coach Raymond Domenech. Is this second leg the ideal moment for reconciliation?
I then highlighted the warmth of the fans in the Roudourou stadium, in Guingamp [where France beat Faroe Islands 5-0 in October]. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate the 6,000-odd supporters who made the trip to Dublin. It was perhaps hard to hear them but I promise you that their presence really moved the players. It’s not a dream to expect us to get as much support in the Stade de France as the Irish had at home. I know that will be the case. It’s simply a question of logic, it’s an obligation. Everyone wants to go to this World Cup, our supporters too. So I hope that the people of France will get behind us. It’s now or never.
Even though you said that your feet remain firmly in Clairefontaine, is it safe to assume that South Africa 2010 is still in the back of your mind?
Of course, but it has been since the start and isn’t necessarily more so today. We don’t see ourselves missing this event. We know how much the first World Cup in Africa means... For me, the trigger came in our matches against Lithuania [France won 1-0 away on 28 March and by the same score at home three days later). At the time, if you remember, very few people would have thought us capable of winning in Dublin. Yet we always believed in ourselves. We did what we had to do. But I repeat, the hardest part is still to come.