Goals from Jeremy Menez and Yohan Cabaye ensured a 2-0 victory for France over co-hosts Ukraine, ending a six year wait for victory in the finals of a major tournament for Les Bleus in the process.
France had gone eight games without a win in tournament competition since Zinedine Zidane’s winner versus Portugal in the semi finals of World Cup 2006 and Laurent Blanc’s team would have been anxious to end their dry spell against a mediocre, yet gutsy Ukraine side following a frustrating 1-1 draw with England in the opening round of fixtures. Ukraine came into the game with the hope of continuing the momentum of Monday night’s emotional victory over Sweden as Oleh Blokhin opted to start the 35-year-old Andriy Shevchenko for the second game in succession following his well taken double in the co-hosts’ opening game.
However an intriguing fixture soon had to be halted following a spectacular lightning storm, in which heavy rain quickly made the pitch unplayable and resulted in referee Bjorn Kuipers’ decision to suspend play after just four minutes. The extreme weather conditions continued to produce a stunning scene in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena for almost an hour before the teams re-emerged to continue play. As a consequence the game found it hard to re-produce the spectacle of the dramatic storm with the opening 20 minutes being dominated by scrappy football which was played in a stop-start fashion.
It was the dogged determination of Franck Ribery that finally injected some excitement into the game as the Bayern Munich winger chased down a sloppy backwards pass by his club team-mate Antoliy Tymoschuk before squaring a dangerous ball into the Ukrainebox. Ribery’s cross eluded its intended target Karim Benzema but squeezed past a cluster of players to find Jeremy Menez one-on-one with Andriy Pyatov. Menez, installed into the side in place of Florent Malouda, could only fluff his shot as Pyatov blocked with his legs.
Ukraine’s reply came from a likely source as Andriy Shevchenko cleverly moved free of Mathieu Debuchy to meet a cute lobbed through-ball from Yehven Selin. Shevchenko found himself advancing towards Hugo Lloris’ goal but shot from a tight angle for the French ‘keeper to block easily when squaring the ball was arguably the better option.
France then could have entered the half time break with the lead as Samir Nasri sent a delightful free-kick deep into the Ukraine box for Philippe Mexes to power a strong header goalwards. Pyatov in the Ukraine goal, who had looked uncomfortable in the opening game, was able to pull off a miraculous save via a strong hand, preserving the deadlock.
The 2nd half started in lively fashion with both teams eager to attack, Menez had an effort blocked well by Pyatov before Shevchenko watched a superb curling effort sail narrowly wide of Lloris’ goal. The Donetsk crowd were in buoyant mood until the French at last exhibited their superior technical quality with a well worked opener. Ribery combined his raw pace and neat ball control to tear apart the Ukrainian right flank before centering for Benzema. Neglecting the temptation of advancing on goal Benzema spotted a decisive run from the impressive Menez, who cut infield with his right foot before stinging a shot beyond Pyatov with his left.
Unlike in Monday night’s game there was to be no instant reprieve for Ukraine, who instead found themselves two goals down after France again exemplified their attacking quality. Benzema was instrumental for a second time as he dribbled away from several Ukrainian defenders before finding Cabaye, who quickly and precisely guided the ball beyond a helpless Pyatov from inside the box.
Cabaye could have doubled his tally with 25 minutes left to play after France enjoyed a spell of possession on the edge of the Ukraine box that seemed to last a lifetime before the Newcastle United midfielder crashed a venomous strike onto the post. Ukraine were deflated by France’s sudden burst of quality and failed to recover as Les Bleus coasted to what was ultimately a well deserved and potentially critical victory.
France now only require a point versus an already eliminated Sweden team to ensure their navigation into the quarter finals, and although their back four may prevent them from seriously threatening to make a lasting impact on the tournament, their undoubted offensive quality is enough to make them a daunting prospect for any opponent. If Ukraine are to qualify from the group stage then they must now beat England or hope that Sweden inflict a heavy defeat on France if they are to draw their final game. With the home support behind them it is not unrealistic to suggest that, despite their lack of quality, Ukraine pose a serious threat to a nervy England team’s hopes of progression as the two teams look forward to their clash in Donetsk on Tuesday night.