DUBLIN (AFP) - Nicolas Anelka gave France a crucial 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland here on Saturday as the 1998 world champions and 2006 runners-up gained the upper-hand after the first leg of their World Cup play-off.
Chelsea striker Anelka struck the vital away goal with 18 minutes left at Croke Park with his shot taking a wicked deflection off Sean St Ledger and past Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given.
It was a goal which will make France favourites to progress to the finals when the second leg is played at the Stade de France in Paris on Wednesday.
France, playing with Andre-Pierre Gignac as a lone striker ahead of three advanced midfielders and two anchor men, cluttered the midfield in the early stages preventing the Irish from getting off to a fast start.
After a robust but uneventful opening 10 minutes the game looked to have sprung to life when Gignac put the ball in the net after running beyond Richard Dunne but it was ruled offside.
Ireland responded with a miss-hit Kevin Doyle cross that forced Hugo Lloris into an easy save at his front post.
The Irish mustered little in the opening quarter but grew into the game as Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews were consistently stronger in the tackle.
But the French had more possession with Thierry Henry and Anelka drifting into the middle to conduct affairs.
Given's first save came in the 25th minute when a mix up in the Irish midfield gave Yoann Gourcuff a chance to shoot tamely from distance.
Ireland's first real chance came gilt-edged.
Liam Lawrence, picked ahead of Stephen Hunt and Aiden McGeady on the right of midfield, swept a rebound off Lloris wide from just eight yards out after Robbie Keane had snuck in behind the French rearguard.
Andrews curled a much harder chance wide three minutes later after good interplay between Keane and Doyle.
But the only other chance of the closing 15 minutes fell to Henry who wasted a good chance after dispossessing a dithering Andrews on the edge of the Irish box only to clumsily shoot wide.
In the second-half, Ireland caused panic in the French defence from a corner with first John O'Shea then Keane and finally Kevin Kilbane shooting in quick succession as the ball bobbled around the box after a Duff corner.
The French came back with Lassana Diarra firing a powerful shot from outside the box narrowly wide.
Just as the French began to look frustrated, the referee added to their annoyance by refusing a decent penalty shout after Patrice Evra went down after poking the ball past an advancing Given.
The breakthrough came moments later as neat one-touch play gave Anelka the chance to fire in his deflected shot.
Gignac missed a golden chance to finish off the game and probably the whole play-off.
Hesitation between Dunne and Given forced the goalkeeper down at the feet of Anelka. The rebound fell to the Toulouse striker who sliced his shot towards the corner flag with the goal untended.
The Irish nearly snatched an equaliser late on.
Lloris had to twice save his team firstly when he threw himself at substitute Aiden McGeady's feet and soon after scooping away an O'Shea shot in the dying seconds.
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