It promises to be a good occasion for an inexperienced Republic of Ireland squad in Paris tonight, but nothing compares to the real thing.
The Stade de France evokes a range of emotions for the Republic’s fans and players. This November marks the ninth anniversary of Thierry Henry’s handball and all the heartbreak and anguish that went with it.
Two summers ago the Euro 2016 adventure created happier memories, with Wes Hoolahan scoring a glorious goal against Sweden at this venue, yet that competition ended with a deflating defeat to the hosts in Lyon.
Tonight the Republic are merely a warm-up act for a French side cranking up the preparations for Russia. With the exception of League of Ireland duo Shane Supple and Graham Burke, O’Neill’s squad are now in their last week of the season.
No matter what happens tonight, the summer of 2018 will go down as a missed opportunity.
Still, the quality of the French will make this a test, and the mentality of the Irish group should ensure it’s competitive. Indeed, O’Neill took umbrage at suggestion that his group could be in wind-down mode.
“If I was playing in this game for the Republic of Ireland, I wouldn’t be considering winding down for the match,” said O’Neill. “I’d be considering it a great honour. Particularly if I had no caps or one cap. It would be important as an international player to see where I stand.”
The Derry man had spoken of playing an experienced side for this game, but circumstances will force him to take some gambles.
Harry Arter will not be ready to play a full part, which may open the door for Declan Rice to figure in midfield next to David Meyler. Preston’s Alan Browne may also get the opportunity to improve on his showing in Turkey in March, while the one position where O’Neill will have to take a punt is on the left side of defence where Stephen Ward is taking an extended break.