Ukraine hold 2-0 first-leg lead
19 November ~ After losing to Ukraine for the first time ever last Friday, France have to overturn a 2-0 deficit tonight in the second leg of the World Cup qualifying play-offs. Considering their very poor performance in Kiev and that the Ukrainians are on an eight-game streak without conceding a goal, Les Bleus don't have many reasons to be optimistic. The first leg highlighted France's defensive fragility and even the supposedly reliable centre-back Laurent Koscielny made mistakes that cost a penalty and later a red card.
Replacing the usual starter Mathieu Valbuena in a central playmaker position, Samir Nasri failed to fulfil his role and missed France's best chance in the second half. The Ukrainians had realised that stifling Franck Ribéry was the key to the game – at the risk of committing several fouls against him and having two players suspended for the return leg.
The 4-2-3-1 system adopted by coach Didier Deschamps limits the attacking contribution that can be made by midfielders Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, who have to focus instead on winning the ball back. At Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, the pair are used to playing in a three-man combination with a deep-lying playmaker who also takes on some defensive tasks, a role which could suit Yohan Cabaye.
While far from a "total football" style, Ukraine followed principles inherited from the legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi (under whom the current national coach Mykhaylo Fomenko played at Dynamo Kiev) with forceful pressing and counter-attacks, and occasionally fine team moves such as the one finished off by Roman Zozulya for the opening goal.
France will have to take inspiration from Saint-Étienne's come back from 2-0 down against Dynamo Kiev in 1976, one of the most memorable feats by a French team in the European Cup. Qualification would also be a way for Les Bleus to restore their image. As biased and useless it may be, a recent poll showed that 82 per cent of the French had a "bad opinion" of the national football team, with only President François Hollande a rival in terms of unpopularity.
Before the play-offs draw, Cristiano Ronaldo declared that the only team against which he didn't want to play was France "for various reasons" he couldn't talk about, only explaining that there would be too many interests at stake. And before the first leg, former Kiev star Oleg Salenko said in the French newspaper L'Equipe that France "have high-ranking people like Platini" and that "if he was UEFA president, he would do everything for his country to qualify", mentioning Thierry Henry's handball against the Republic of Ireland in their playoff for the 2010 World Cup. This time, even a bout of cheating may not be enough to secure the trip to Brazil next summer. Matthieu Richard