Nicolas Anelka, for all his extraordinary career, including moves amounting to £86 million and a medal collection not to be sniffed at, has never set foot at a World Cup. His intervention, 72 minutes into a contest dripping with tension, makes it advantage France.
Although Raymond Domenech's team played the classier football, it took a stroke of outrageous fortune to claim their away goal. When Anelka took aim from the edge of the area, Shay Given should not have been unduly worried. But the ball ricocheted off Sean St Ledger and lurched off at a brutal angle, off a post, and in. It was hardly the first time the Republic of Ireland have been dealt a bad hand in this play-off scenario.
It felt like a cruel twist of fate to meet the strongest possible opponents in the play-off zone – the team who were arguably a Zinedine Zidane shaped headbutt away from winning the last World Cup three years ago in Germany. France's selection, despite the injuries to a couple of bedrock players in Franck Ribery and Jérémy Toulalan, and irrespective of the inertia they had shown at various points in the group stage, was still fearsomely imposing. But in which of their guises would they turn up? The French connection or the moody blues?
The Republic, in contrast to the erratic French, have played with a very settled team throughout the campaign, enabling a newly formed group to build a hugely committed sense of purpose. Would that be enough? It took less than 20 seconds for Damien Duff to dispossess Bacary Sagna with a thumping challenge, as if to emphasise a point.
But for all the skin-tingling atmosphere of Croke Park, all the early bravado, there was a nagging sense of inevitability as France began to piece together some slick passing. André-Pierre Gignac looked an awkward customer as he roamed at the top of France's team. Anelka stalked around, probing, and passing with menacing authority. He has been their most inspiring performer of late and began willing to carry that label on his back.
Having come within a whisker of beating the world champions, Italy, last month, Ireland had to show they had absorbed the knee-in-the-kidneys lesson of conceding a last-minute equaliser. No silly mistakes. No lapses. That was the essential Trapattoni message.
Ireland had a scare in the 10th minute when Richard Dunne committed that cardinal sin. He switched off, allowing a long ball to sail over his head and into the feet of Gignac. The Toulouse striker clipped the ball over Given and into the net, but it was meaningless as he was ruled offside. Risky business from Ireland all the same.
Quarter of an hour gone. Green shirts pushed and pressed and hustled France from an advanced position all the way back to Hugo Lloris in goal. The crowd cheered heartily.
Ireland needed to apply some pressure of their own, and just before the half hour everyone gasped as Liam Lawrence faced an unguarded goal. Although the ball squirted off target, aided by a slight deflection off Patrice Evra, the moment felt significant, as something seemed to alter in both teams' minds. For the first time in the match Ireland showed some spark and France suddenly looked uncomfortable.
Keith Andrews took up the baton to strike from 20 yards, curling the ball wide. Seven minutes before half-time Thierry Henry awoke and carried the challenge back, wriggling through to drag his shot past a post.
Goalless at the break, the dilemma of sorts that both teams faced going into the second half was whether to keep the handbrake on, to preserve the platform of a draw for the second leg, or try moving through the gears.
Duff made no bones about which side of the fence he sat on, plugging in the Irish electricity with a mazy run to win a corner, before signalling to psyche up the fans. From the corner, Dunne nodded on to an unmarked John O'Shea, but the Manchester United defender sliced at the chance.
France responded. It was as if a switch had clicked. They sauntered forward in numbers to produce their most threatening spell. Lassana Diarra unleashed a fine long-range drive which swerved just away from goal, and then Anelka powered a shot for Given to tame. The Chelsea forward teed himself up again, but this time Kevin Kilbane supplied the block. Next up, Gignac's glancing header was tipped over by Given.
There was an even more heart-stopping moment when Evra gallopped on to Gignac's dinked pass and tumbled as he met Given's challenge. The referee ruled that it was no penalty and no booking for Evra.
After Anelka's deflected goal sparked celebrations for Domenech's team, Given kept the scoreline manageable when he dived at the Chelsea man's feet after Kilbane's error.
Hugo Lloris made an impression too with a fine save to deny Glenn Whelan an equaliser for the desperate home side three minutes from time.