KIEV, November 16 – France coach Didier Deschamps admitted that his team couldn’t cope with the physical approach of their opponents after Les Bleus lost 2-0 to Ukraine in their World Cup play-off first leg on Friday.
The result in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium left France in a desperate situation ahead of next Tuesday’s decisive return match at the Stade de France with a place in next year’s finals in Brazil at stake.
A well-organised Ukraine suffocated France’s main attacking threat in Franck Ribery and took a deserved second-half lead through Roman Zozulia before Andriy Yarmolenko made it 2-0 from the penalty spot late on.
“The first half was quite even. We had chances in the second half but getting the first goal gave Ukraine energy,” said a despondent Deschamps.
“It is confirmation that this team are not easy to play against. They are committed but have quality too. We have to congratulate them. They are in a favourable position. It is up to us to recover well and try to turn things around.”
“We struggled because of their commitment. Ukraine defended aggressively and committed fouls. They are a solid side.
“They knew that the danger would come from Franck Ribery’s (left) flank. He was fouled a lot and had very little space in which to express himself.
“We tried to respond to their physicality. Things went in their favour but it was nothing to do with fear on our part. They restricted us going forward and then got the ball forward quickly themselves.”
France’s misery was compounded when Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny was sent off at the end after raising his hands to Ukraine centre-back Oleksandr Kucher, who was himself shown a red card just before the end.
That means Deschamps will need to make changes to his defence for the return leg with Koscielny now automatically suspended, and the France coach was disappointed to see one of his players losing their cool in such fashion.
“He was frustrated after the penalty and let the situation get the better of him. Part of playing at the highest level is being able to resist provocation and knowing how to keep your calm,” he said.
Players remain upbeat
Meanwhile, the French players did their best to remain upbeat after a result which leaves Les Bleus on the brink of missing a major tournament finals for the first time since the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
“We know that it will be difficult in the return, but as long as it is not over we will try to turn it around,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi of Paris Saint-Germain.
“We came up against a team that pressed high and were very physical and we are disappointed but not beaten. We would have liked another result, but there is still another match for us to qualify.”
“We have no choice. If we want to go to Brazil we have to score goals and win the game,” added Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who started the match on the bench as France failed to build on an encouraging recent run of three straight wins in which they had scored 13 times.
While France contemplated a disastrous evening, Ukraine saw their unbeaten run under new coach Mikhail Fomenko continue as they closed in on a place at the World Cup finals for just the second time.
“There would have been no point in us turning up if we didn’t think we could win the game,” said Fomenko.
“A 3-0 win would have been better and we had chances to score another goal, but at half-time I asked the players to step things up a gear and they responded. The mental strength of the players was the key factor.”
Ukraine’s only previous appearance at a World Cup came in 2006, when they reached the quarter-finals in Germany before losing to Italy. The Italians went on to win the trophy, beating France on penalties in the final.