Magical night for the French
CHRIS WINTERBURN reports on the amazing one-match transformation that carried France to Brazil
It is Tuesday November 19th 2013, Didier Deschamps is facing the cameras for the first time since securing France’s spot at this summer’s World Cup in Brazil and being whisked at least eight feet in the year by his victorious charges in blue. “C’est la magie du football.”
And “The magic of football” is the perfect description of France’s two-legged tie with Ukraine..
Shortly after Deschamps’ emotional interview, the scene was reminiscent of a New Year’s Eve party, Patrice Evra and Olivier Giroud, adversaries in club football, shared a microphone in the centre of the Stade de France pitch and exuberantly orchestrated a rendition of La Marseillaise with which the still full stadium joins in.
The French squad are on the way to Brazil – but things looked significantly different just four days earlier.
In a tightly-contested first leg at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side who took the advantage with a 2-0 victory courtesy of goals from Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko, who was a threat to France all evening.
Deschamps was well aware of Ukraine’s ability to hit France on the counter with the unique talents of Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko occupying either wing and, as a result, the experienced French manager deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation with a flat holding midfield pairing of Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba.
In theory this was the best choice for this particular match. Matuidi and Pogba were both solid and very little in the way of Ukraine attacks got past them centrally, however the defensive setup of the midfield pairing meant that the service to Franck Ribery on the left wing was limited and the Ballon D'Or favourite was too isolated to have a positive impact on the match.
Ukraine defended resolutely when they were required to and with a tired Olivier Giroud playing as Les Bleus’ sole forward it was always going to be a difficult night to carve out clear goalscoring opportunities.
France had been impressive in the group stage of qualification, finishing just three points behind Spain and the general consensus was that under the stewardship of Deschamps, France had emerged from the dark periods of 2009 to 2011 where the South African World Cup fiasco had rocked the national team to the foundations. They looked to be preparing for a brighter future with several talented young players breaking into the side as well as the more experienced heads entering their peak years. This is why the result and laboured performance in Kiev was such a disappointment.
Both teams using a 4-2-3-1 wasn’t conducive to a classic match. It seemed France were intent on avoiding defeat heading back to Saint-Denis for the second leg, and Ukraine were intent on staying in the tie, hoping to spring a surprise on their travels.
Fomenko’s side did become slightly more adventurous as the first leg progressed and Ukraine’s two goals in relatively quick succession late on in the second half stunned France into action. Gone was the comfortable nature of Les Bleus’ display at 0-0; now the pace of France’s game was increased with an air of panic in the team. The key was to get Ribery on the ball as often as possible. Matuidi and Pogba were still too deep to achieve that so Samir Nasri had to draw back from his number ten role and link the play through Ribery from a deeper position. This made France’s system imbalanced and attacks broke down in the final third.
The game ended on a sour note for both sides with Koscielny being shown a straight red for a slap on Oleksandr Kucher and Kucher then given a second yellow for a poor tackle on Ribery, It was indicative of the French frustration with both a poor performance from themselves and referee Cuneyt Cakir.
Afterwards Les Bleus were given little chance by the media of overturning the two goal deficit in less than a weeks' time.
L’Equipe went as far as to suggest it was the worst performance in the history of French football.
Despite the general gloom around the French team, the crowd at the Stade de France for the second leg was exceptional; the atmosphere was like nothing seen at international level for a long time. The Tricolour flags handed out on entry to the stadium made for a photogenic scene and the French players responded accordingly. Deschamps changed his favoured 4-2-3-1 system to 4-3-3 to give France hope of controlling the game in midfield and being able to supply the forward three with service. Pogba and Matuidi remained in midfield with Yohan Cabaye positioned in the middle of the two. Nasri was sacrificed in order to fit Cabaye into the system. Mathieu Valbuena replaced Loic Remy on the right while Karim Benzema was brought in ahead of Giroud in order to provide a more explosive style in front of goal.
Les Bleus began the match like a team possessed with Ribery driving forward
at every opportunity and Ukraine’s game plan of defending their two-goal advantage to the death was in evidence from the first five minutes of play.
The opening goal came through Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho in the 22nd minute and was the early breakthrough France required. Deschamps' men then kept up the pressure on Ukraine, having a Benzema goal wrongly disallowed shortly after Sakho’s opener. However fortune would even itself out just after the half hour as Benzema’s goal from an offside position was given.
The French performance in the second leg was so much sharper in contrast to the first with the switch to three in midfield proving a real game changer. Cabaye played for the most part a bit deeper than Matuidi and Pogba with the two more powerful midfielders given licence to roam forward and distribute the ball to one of Valbuena or Ribery after luring a defender out of position, very reminiscent of Yaya Toure’s forward runs at Manchester City.
Cabaye playing deeper also allowed him to pick out a teammate with a long range pass which is something both Matuidi and Pogba cannot do as effectively.
Valbuena’s work rate down the right far eclipsed that of Nasri and was exactly what was required. Valbuena tracked back throughout the match, helping Debuchy double up on the exciting Konoplyanka and mark him out of the game. This again contributed to France's overwhelming sense of control throughout the second leg.
Ukraine’s task was made significantly harder just after half-time when Yevhen Khacheridi was shown a second yellow for a cynical foul on Ribery.
Ukraine’s defensive solidity had gone and all France had to do was be patient and the goal would come. This was the case as an Oleg Gusev own goal with 20 minutes to play sealed France’s passage to Brazil after what had been a bumpy 180 minute battle with Ukraine.
The second leg performance was far more reflective of France’s real ability and quality, the first leg performance was poor but the team showed incredible heart to recover from such a position against one of the staunchest defences in Europe. Deschamps’ tactical changes were minimal yet clever and ultimately effective and the players themselves put in a significantly higher level of performance.
France’s second leg performance did at times feel magical. How they could dominate a team that had looked impenetrable just days earlier when they themselves had appeared so weak, was astonishing. Whether or not the French media's lambasting headlines had urged the players on we cannot be sure but following the final whistle, and the initial jubilation and celebrations with the fans, the French players delivered a small gesture which shed some light onto their feelings towards the French media.
Led by Ribery the victorious squad ran into the mixed zone occupied by media outlets and sprayed everyone in sight with a mixture of champagne, energy drinks and water!