Lucky break: France's Nicolas Anelka, courtesy of a deflection off Ireland's Seán St Ledger, fires home the only goal of the game in last night's World Cup qualification play-off at Croke Park

With a minute to go here last night, Robbie Keane flicked a back-heel to the onrushing Glenn Whelan inside the French box and but for the raised elbow of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Ireland would be going to Paris on Wednesday with a 1-1 draw. Giovanni Trapattoni would no doubt have been delighted – sad to concede the away goal, naturally but quietly happy because a draw was all his side came looking for. But a deflected shot from Nicolas Anelka – off Seán St Ledger, off the inside of Shay Given's post – gave France the win. Pity.

This was a comfortable night for France, one where they endured the odd scare without ever being frightened. And in truth, it was a comfortable enough one for Ireland too, as for long periods they achieved what Trapattoni had sent them out to do. They kept France at arm's length and reduced them to shots from distance. The difference was, only one team was at home. Only one team should have been happy leaving Dublin with a draw but both teams played like it was their only ambition.

The two teams had tiptoed around each other for the first half, like callow teenagers at a Foróige disco. France wanted to settle the crowd, Ireland to settle themselves. It was as if neither side wanted to be caught doing anything so gauche as create a chance or to deviate from whatever they had been shown on chalkboards over the past week. To be expected, maybe, given the stakes.

If anyone thought the French were coming here as don't-like-it-up-'em types, they were disabused of the notion in jig time. Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews were going around putting in what Phoenix Park denizens would call reducers, only for Lassana and Alou Diarra to come back with plenty of their own. Raymond Domenech may be one of the most unpopular managers in Europe – he and Thierry Henry apparently had another row yesterday morning and his name was booed by the French supporters – but his players clearly see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind.

And so the play came dropping slow. Nicolas Anelka fancied himself as a latter-day Zidane for the night, all the time dropping short and looking to nip and tuck a way through but without any great measure of success. Yoann Gourcuff tossed in a left-foot shot off balance midway through the half that was a gift to Shay Given and other than that France were as comfortable and unthreatening as a mid-range saloon.

Without being terribly adventurous, Ireland found themselves with the best chance of the half when a skyscraper from Given found its way through to Robbie Keane whose collision with French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris caused the ball to squirt clear to Liam Lawrence six yards out. Lawrence seemed off balance as his shot went to the right of the post, he claimed a corner but the whistle had already been blown for a free to the away side.

France got a bit more lively about matters in the second period, pushing on from midfield and keeping the ball more than they had been doing. Ireland were content to leave them at it and so long pots from Lassana Diarra and Anelka were there for France if they wanted them. Diarra's went wide, Anelka's down Given's throat.

The problem with that is that all it takes is exactly the type of misfortune that befell Ireland when St Ledger's deflection took the ball in and all the good work, all the caution, all the what-we-have-we-hold was for nought.

A sad result. A ship in the harbour is safe but that is not what ships are built for.