France had something of a monkey on their collective back as they approached Friday night’s match against Ukraine. The media were delighted to rail off negative statistics, such as Les Bleus failing to win a tournament match since 2006 or having never defeated a European Championship opponent without Zinedine Zidane or Michel Platini amongst their ranks.
Moreover, they were reminded of their harrowing experience the last time they met a host nation; a 2-1 defeat against South Africa two years ago that represented one of the great nadirs in the nation’s footballing history.
But, tonight's 2-0 victory at the Donbass Arena not only puts them in a great position to qualify for the quarter-finals as group winners, it also establishes them as one of the main contenders for the title along with Spain and Germany.
Ukraine's defence looked very fragile on Monday against Sweden, but it was forgotten on a dream night for Andriy Shevchenko, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co only managed to score once.
This time, against better opposition, those weaknesses were punished.
With Yevhen Selin of Vorskla very inexperienced at the highest level, and center-back duo Taras Mykhalyk and Yevhen Khacheridi lacking tactically, only a great performance by keeper Andriy Pyatov saved the Ukrainians in the first half.
With Andriy Voronin replaced by Marko Devych at half-time, the co-hosts were even more exposed in midfield, and their defeat was fully deserved.
Coach Oleg Blokhin must now think of changing the back-line for the do-or-die final group game against England. Taking into account it will be Wayne Rooney's debut at Euro 2012, the mission will not be easy.
Jeremy Menez, who added an extra dimension to the France attack due to his willingness to run in behind the defence, opened the scoring after missing a couple of simple chances, and Yohan Cabaye soon added a slick second.
Thereafter, it was a procession for France, who passed the ball smoothly, but still showed a weakness at the heart of their defence that will concern head coach Laurent Blanc.
However, given the tricky circumstances surrounding this match, ‘Lolo’ will be largely delighted with what he witnessed at a venue in which Les Bleus won 4-1 almost exactly a year ago.
It was a match that will be forever remembered for the spectacular interlude provided by Mother Nature only five minutes into the game. A stunning lightning storm halted proceedings for an hour, testing the mental resolve of both sets of players, yet it was the French who emerged through the flood the stronger, aided, doubtless, by the fact that some of the wind had been sucked from a partisan home crowd.
France were under pressure too. Les Bleus’ recent history on the big stage weighed heavily on the players’ shoulders, and for periods this was worryingly evident. An opening draw against England had been palatable without being astounding, but now with four points and a match against Sweden – arguably Group D’s weakest side – to come, they are well positioned not only to progress, but to avoid likely Group C winners Spain.
Victory, therefore, tees France up nicely for the remainder of the competition, as they attempt to reclaim the crown they last won in 2000, with Blanc as their captain. Now in the dugout, lightning may just strike twice for the coach.
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