Pilloried by the press in France over the last few years, the criticism was intense since the national football team went down 2-0 on Saturday night to a resilient Ukraine. But the French squad silenced them all with an historic 3-0 win that sees them qualify for next year’s World Cup Finals in Brazil.
It is the first time in World Cup qualifying history that a European side in the play-offs has managed to turn around a 2-0 defecit. Roared on by a passionate crowd at a packed Stade de France, the French matched their fervent supporters with a gutsy display and goals from Real Madrid man Karim Benzema, Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho and the hapless Ukranian Gusev who turned the ball into his own net.
The notoriously mean Ukranian defence – which had gone eight matches clear without conceding a single goal – was finally outdone three times last night by the relentless pressing game of the fired-up French.
With Newcastle man Yohan Cabaye giving a masterful display at the heart of the midfield in a 4-3-3 formation and Benzema with Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena up front, the French set-up operated like the very embodiment of their coach Didier Deschamps himself, rail-roading the opposition at every opportunity and never allowing them to settle for an instant.
Much of it was not the pretty passing game of classic French teams of the past, relying as much on muscle and aerial bombardment as anything else, but it got the job done. The defender Sakho bagged the first goal on the 22nd minute after goalkeeper Pyatov had blocked an attempt by Franck Ribéry. This was followed on the 30th minute by Benzema’s 18th goal for his country.
With Cabaye running the show in the middle of the park, ably assisted by the fast-paced Matuidi of PSG and Pogba of Juventus, Ribéry was finally afforded the breathing space to operate effectively along the left wing that had been denied him by the Ukrainians during the first leg in Kiev. One of his crosses found Benzema on the 29th minute, who got a perfectly good goal that was denied him by a marginal offside decision. The Galactico kept his cool and got his legitimate reward one minute later, making it 2-0 before half-time.
Defender Yevhen Khacheridi was sent off for the Ukrainians early in the second half, having earned a second yellow card and the final nail in the coffin for the Ukrainians came 18 minutes from the end. Following a corner from Cabaye and a half-volley from Evra, a strong strike from Ribéry was unwittingly deflected by defender Gusev with the omni-present Sakho lurking with intent. The mistake gave France a golden 3-2 advantage over the two legs.
Ukraine had a false offside decision of their own and Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud almost made it 4-0 four minutes from time.