By Robin Bairner
Almost exactly two decades after France spectacularly failed to qualify for World Cup 1994 due to a shock home defeat against Bulgaria, head coach Didier Deschamps, who was on the field that dark night at Parc des Princes, finds himself again in the firing line as les Bleus’ place in Brazil comes under threat.
A 2-0 defeat in Ukraine, which came about due to Roman Zozulya’s well-constructed but ultimately scrambled effort in the formative stages of the second half and then Andriy Yarmolenko’s penalty, leaves France vulnerable ahead of the second leg at Stade de France next Tuesday. If they are to overturn their deficit, they will need to perform far better than they did in Kiev.
Ukraine offered obstinate opponents for much of the first hour but dominated the final 30 minutes with an excellent display of counterattacking football.
Defensively they were extremely organised, while Zozulya spent much of the first half of the match so distant from his team-mates it seemed he was leading a lone fight to find the net. The Dnipro forward did enjoy tremendous success with his industry and was highly effective on the break with his harrying style. Otherwise only Yarmolenko down the home right looked a true threat for the duration.
But what the hosts did well was to stifle their opponents.
Franck Ribery, the man who is the Ballon d’Or winner in waiting, according to many pundits, often found himself surrounded by a cluster of hungry defenders. With France’s star man subdued, Deschamps’ side had few answers.
Samir Nasri may have enjoyed something of a domestic renaissance, yet he was remarkably sloppy in possession and will do well to keep Mathieu Valbuena out of the team in Paris. The Manchester City man lacked the nous and imagination to break down a defence that has enjoyed nearly 12 hours without conceding a goal.
Nasri was included in the France side on the basis of his current form and Loic Remy was involved on the right wing for a similar reason. The gamble to start the Newcastle forward would also backfire, however. Although he managed to produce moments of danger, his match was ultimately defined by a fresh-air swipe from a chance that could have put the visitors into the lead.
Only Oleksandr Kucher's late red card, which came after France's Laurent Koscielny was dismissed, offered a real blot on the evening for the home side. He will, of course, be banned for the second leg, along with Artem Fedetskiy, so a re-jig in the seemingly impregnable rearguard is required.
Regardless, Ukraine can start dreaming of a place in Brazil. Their defensive record is formidable, and with a two-goal cushion to protect – plus the potential bonus of an away goal – there can be little doubt that Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side are strong favourites to become the Bulgaria of this generation.
Deschamps is the common factor, and while he was able to bounce back from that blow in Paris 20 years ago to ultimately win the World Cup as a player in 1998, it would be remarkable if he was now able to do likewise as France’s coach.