Mag­i­cal night for the French

CHRIS WIN­TER­BURN re­ports on the amaz­ing one-match trans­for­ma­tion that car­ried France to Brazil

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - Contents -

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!

Di­dier Deschamps

Karim Ben­zema

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