Down but not out: Glenn Whelan and Robbie Keane of Ireland sink to the Croke Park turf in disappointment at the final whistle last night

What a pity. This was arguably Ireland's best performance under Giovanni Trapattoni but it earned them absolutely nothing bar an incredibly steep hill to climb in Paris on Wednesday. Nicolas Anelka's deflected goal on 72 minutes was the difference between the teams on the night and the result means that Ireland have to score once at the Stade de France to stay in the tie, or twice if they want to win it without recourse to a penalty shoot-out. You wouldn't be putting your mortgage on it. Which is a shame because Ireland's efforts last night were worthy of a 0-0 draw, or with some better finishing – particularly from Liam Lawrence in the first half – a single goal advantage.

Ultimately it wasn't to be, but there was still plenty to admire. Ireland's intent was obvious from the first whistle; they looked physically and mentally primed. Damien Duff, after barely 15 seconds, clattered into Bacary Sagna while in the first quarter of an hour both Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan leaped into a couple of challenges as though their very existence depended on it.

All that, though, was to be expected on the night that was in it, but the cuteness of Ireland's early play was a bonus. It wasn't earth-shattering stuff by any means, but the home side passed in neat triangles and kept hold of possession much better, particularly up the top end of the pitch, than they had against Italy.

That allowed the home side to take the initiative but a more familiar route of attack, the good old long ball, almost produced a goal on 28 minutes. A lengthy boot from Seán St Ledger was flicked on by Kevin Doyle on the edge of the box and Robbie Keane, as he does, sneaked between William Gallas and Sagna to get to the pitch of the ball. Ireland's captain controlled it and poked it towards goal in one movement but Hugo Lloris stood up long enough to block the ball. Then came the head-in-the-hands moment. The rebound fell to Lawrence eight yards out but with the keeper on the floor, the Stoke midfielder screwed his effort wide of the post. He should have stuck it away, no doubt, whether Patrice Evra got a crucial touch or not, but the referee had already blown for a foul by Doyle. Two minutes after that near miss, clever link-up play involving Keane and Doyle put Andrews into space on the edge of the box but the midfielder's effort just wouldn't curl inside Lloris's left-hand post, no matter how much the raucous Croke Park willed it to.

And what of France in that first half? Andre-Pierre Gignac had a chipped effort over Shay Given ruled out for offside, and Thierry Henry rasped a shot wide from 15 yards after Andrews couldn't get the ball under control. But those efforts aside, the visitors were largely leaden-footed. Clueless even. Nicolas Anelka, for the most part, played deeper than Sagna on the right, while Henry hardly got a touch on the right. The game plan was working.

The worry, of course, was that France and their collection of attacking talent would come good at some point and a couple of long-range efforts not long after the break – one from Lassana Diarra, the other from Nicolas Anelka – proved the point.

Ireland, to a man, continued to work prodigiously but there was a sense around the hour mark that they were beginning to run out of steam. But onward they plugged, even if now France were dictating the game. The visitors might have had a penalty on 69 minutes when Evra down under a challenge from Given but three minutes later France grabbed, nah, stole the lead. A neat passing move involving Diarra and Gourcuff teed up Anelka on the edge of the box and the Chelsea striker's subsequent shot flew into the net with the help of a deflection off St Ledger and the post. Talk about luck. Raymond Domenech's stars must have been aligned.

Trapattoni threw on Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt in the game's dying throes and they just might have had an equaliser. Leon Best, who came on before the goal, threaded a ball through to Keane, who in turn flicked it into the path of Whelan. Lloris, though, spread himself brilliantly to block the midfielder's effort. Close. But, on the night, no cigar.

Nor is their likely to be one on Wednesday either.