By Mohammed Ali
Laurent Blanc's men made it, just. On a tense night in Paris, it was supposed to be the game which would confirm that France's rejuvenation is complete. Backed by their vociferous fans - which illustrated national pride, something certainly not seen before Blanc's era - it was designed to be the match in which Les Bleus would silence any doubters with a comfortable win over Bosnia & Herzegovina.
And yet, what the 80,000 fans witnessed in the opening few minutes inside the Stade de France was the exact opposite. Safet Susic's men began the clash with plenty of attacking vigour and dominated a side which had been known to choke at this stage in the past.
In a first half which was arguably the worst of Blanc's reign, Edin Dzeko ran rings around Adil Rami before turning the Valencia defender to plant a sumptuous curling finish past Hugo Lloris in the 39th minute. The Manchester City striker also had chances to open the scoring beforehand. In contrast, the hosts could only muster a speculative burst by Loic Remy, and were overwhelmingly outfought and out-thought by the determined visitors.
The second half was to be a better one for France. The introduction of Kevin Gameiro and Marvin Martin in place of Florent Malouda and the disappointing Yohan Cabaye revitalised a side in decline. Both brought the attacking instinct, movement and technique needed to finally break past the Dragons. Chances were created in the final half hour, most notably when Asmir Begovic tipped a Samir Nasri free kick onto the bar. Yet with all that invention and creativity, the break Blanc and his men craved came from an unlikely source.
Penalty? | Nasri was fouled outside the box by Spahic
With 15 minutes to go, and moments after Dzeko threatened to put the Bosnians out of sight with a shot that Lloris spilled, the hosts were back in it with the softest of penalty calls. Nasri and captain Emir Spahic both challenged for the ball before the 24-year-old went to ground. Replays show that the infringement occurred outside the penalty area.
The call, made by referee Craig Thomson, mirrored another judgement that benefited the French just two years previously when Thierry Henry handled the ball before providing the assist to down the Republic of Ireland. Though the consequences of Tuesday's call was not as painful as in 2009 because this time both sides had the safety net of a potential play-off, it again highlighted the team's reliance on such decisions. But for the Dragons, who were highly adventurous and enterprising on the night, it scuppered their game completely when Nasri sent the goalkeeper the wrong way to restore parity.
How will France fare in the finals now their place is confirmed? The general consensus is that Les Bleus must improve if they are to enjoy a lengthy stay in eastern Europe. Yes, key players such as Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery were absent, but injuries are common to any side.
Toothless in attack at times, clueless movement and poor judgement marred a first half in which they failed to capture the collective imagination of a nation. With a fully fit squad, which is no less talented than other top nations, Blanc must improve his team's defensive game after frailties were exposed on Tuesday evening. The return of Philippe Mexes and Bacary Sagna should go some way to eliminating those, but the threat still lingers as Rami found to his undoing, while Cabaye and Yann M'Vila failed to cope with the industrious nature of the Bosnia and Herzegovina midfield, often misplacing passes straight to the opposition.
On the other side of the pitch, the talented wide players France possess took far too long to settle into their offensive rhythm as they searched unsuccessfully for a break. Remy looked uncomfortable spearheading the attack, but soon improved when placed on the wing, providing instant assistance to Gameiro.
In contrast, the favourites for next summer's tournament – the Netherlands, Spain and Germany – all steamrolled their way through qualifying with a brand of devastating football and minimal problems all around.
For a proud footballing country which has the honour of being crowned European champions twice in the past, a semi-final appearance will be the bare minimum their fervent fans expect.
Bosnia & Herzegovina will feel highly aggrieved to see their hopes of an automatic place in the finals be dashed by a questionable penalty appeal. For the French, it's time they started creating their own luck on the pitch rather than rely on a fortuitous call by the referee.
Only time will tell if they can pull it together in time for the finals and become a force to be reckoned with once again. Blanc and his players' preparations begin now. A nation expects.