France walks past co-host Ukraine
Ukraine’s players were first drenched by a thunderstorm, then swamped by France’s clever, passing soccer.
The French ended a six-year drought for a win at a major tournament by beating Ukraine 2-0 Friday in match delayed for nearly an hour because of a huge downpour, thunder and lightning.
Jeremy Menez and Yohan Cabaye scored early in the second half to help France’s to its first win in a major match since the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup.
”I hope the next win won’t take another six years because I will be long fired by then,” France coach Laurent Blanc said. ”We dominated the game right from the start in terms of shots on target and possession.”
Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt and red card in the 2006 World Cup final brought the curtain down on France’s golden generation – and the French then failed to win a match at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Blanc hopes Friday’s win is a sign France can finally be a contender again.
”We scored twice and could have had more,” Blanc said. ”We have a lot of potential.”
Friday’s match at the Donbass Arena had only been going for five minutes when, the atrocious conditions forced the players off the field until the rain let up.
After a 1-1 draw with England in its opening match, France has four points in Group D, the same as England and one more than Ukraine. The French also extended their unbeaten run to 23 games.
”I congratulated my players and the Ukrainian players,” Blanc said. ”It was a good match with both teams trying to attack.”
The fate of both teams will be decided on Tuesday, when France plays Sweden and Ukraine faces England. The Swedes were eliminated after losing to England on Friday.
For the French fans, it was finally something to cheer about after being eliminated in the group stage at both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008.
”France is probably one of the favorites,” Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin said through a translator. ”Some players thought we were already in the quarterfinals. We will have a serious conversation with them. … It is not possible to win the first game and play the second like this.”
Both France goals were the product of the one-touch passing and movement that was once the team’s hallmark.
For the first, Franck Ribery gathered the ball on the left, sprinted forward and then set up Karim Benzema near the penalty area. The Real Madrid forward stroked the ball to Menez, who then cut inside and drilled a low shot inside the near post with his left foot.
The goal justified Blanc’s decision to replace veteran midfielder Florent Malouda with Menez, although the Paris Saint-Germain winger had two earlier chances denied by the legs of Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.
”Menez is a player who needs confidence,” Blanc said. ”He is a quick player and it was a very encouraging game from him.”
France’s second goal was another example of exquisite teamwork, with Ribery and Samir Nasri combining to find Benzema. He cushioned the ball and then split the Ukraine center halves with a superbly weighted pass that allowed Cabaye to run on and finish with an angled shot.
With France’s confidence peaking, Cabaye almost added a third midway through the second half with a half-volley that hit the middle of the right post.
The exasperated whistles from the frustrated home fans at the Donbass Arena grew in intensity, and by the time Nasri forced a late save from Pyatov with a curling free kick, the home fans were already leaving.
”If we are not winning, whistle at me, not the team,” Blokhin said.
Moments before kickoff, the rain intensified as about 49,000 soaked Ukrainians gave a searing rendition of their national anthem after a clap of thunder had interrupted France’s ”La Marseillaise.”
When crackles of lightning lit up the sky, referee Bjoern Kuipers made a quick decision in the fifth minute that the players’ safety and the drenched field made it impossible to continue.
”We were afraid that the match wouldn’t start again,” Blanc said. ”We really wanted to play (and) despite all the rain, the field was in good condition.”
Menez should have given France the lead in the 28th. Ribery intercepted a dreadful back pass from midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk and hit a quick cross that ball rolled behind Benzema and fell to Menez – but Pyatov kicked his effort away.
Ukraine’s only clear chance of the match fell to Andriy Shevchenko in the 35th, but his firm strike was blocked by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
Ukraine: Andriy Pyatov, Oleh Gusev, Taras Mykhalyk, Yevhen Khacheridi, Yevhen Selin, Anatoliy Tymoschuk, Andriy Voronin (Marko Devic, 46), Andriy Yarmolenko (Olexandr Aliyev, 68), Serhiy Nazarenko (Artem Milevskiy, 59), Yevhen Konoplianka, Andriy Shevchenko.
France: Hugo Lloris, Mathieu Debuchy, Adil Rami, Philippe Mexes, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Alou Diarra, Yohan Cabaye (Yann M’Vila, 68), Jeremy Menez (Marvin Martin, 73), Karim Benzema (Olivier Giroud, 76), Franck Ribery.