Nicholas Anelka’s deflected strike in the 72nd minute against Ireland made it advantage France before the second leg on Wednesday night.
Neither side managed to get a foothold in the grippingly tense match, but luck from Anelka’s shot gave the Frenchmen the lead, while Liam Lawrence, Glenn Whelan and John O’ Shea missed chances for Ireland.
Lawrence was given the nod ahead of Aiden McGeady to shore up the right flank for the Republic, and it was the Stoke midfielder who came closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half on 27 minutes.
Andre-Pierre Gignac had already seen a goal for France rightly ruled out for offside before Robbie Keane got in behind the visitors’ back four. Hugo Lloris blocked the skipper’s progress but the ball fell into the path of Lawrence, who saw his close-range volley deflected agonisingly wide of the target by Patrice Evra.
The threat of Anelka and Thierry Henry was being well nullified by the Irish backline, however the Barcelona striker did manage to get a shot off six minutes before the break, but Shay Given remained untested as the French skipper pulled his effort well wide of the target.
John O’Shea made a mess of a good chance to open the scoring six minutes after the break, when the Manchester United defender failed to turn home Richard Dunne’s knock-down from Damien Duff’s corner, while at the other end, Lassana Diarra saw his 25-yard volley whistle past Given’s left-hand post.
Given was again relieved when the referee waved away French appeals for a penalty when Evra tumbled over the Irish keeper’s challenge midway through the second period, but French pressure paid when they took the lead fortuitously with 18 minutes remaining.
Anelka collected the ball outside the box and seeing the opportunity to get a shot off, the Chelsea striker fired an attempt towards goal. The original effort alone probably would not have beaten Given, but a huge deflection off Sean St Ledger saw the Ireland stopper reduced to the role of spectator as the ball found the net via the post.
Kevin Kilbane’s poor backpass handed France a wonderful opportunity to double their lead, but with the goal gaping after Given had denied Anelka, Gignac horribly sliced the rebound out for a throw-in.
The best opportunity for an equaliser came with four minutes remaining. Substitute Leon Best and Keane combined to present Glenn Whelan with a close range oppotunity but the he was denied by a brilliant save by Lloris as the French held on for a crucial victory.
Afterwards captain Keane refused to give up on the nation’s World Cup dream.
“We have to be confident for Wednesday and believe we can win the game. There’s no question we can do it on Wednesday,” he told Sky Sports.
“We’ve been to big teams like Italy and got results, so we know we can. It’s not going to be easy but we have to believe.”
France’s Henry also stressed the tie is not over yet.
“We have seen the Irish are a difficult team to beat and they didn’t lose a game in the whole qualifying so what we did today is nice,” he said.
“There are still 90 minutes to go so it will be a tough game for us in Paris.”