Goals from Ribery and Anelka gives France the full 3 points in this "trap" Euro Qualifier for Les Bleus. Heading into the match it was clear that nothing short of a victory would satisfy the French. In a tight group, every point, especially those at home, are and will be crucial. France headed into the match tied with Ukraine, Scotland and 2 points ahead of Italy. With a home match against Georgia, a team that France easily defeated at the opening round of qualifiers, this match was going to set the pace for the French team before they head into the summer break.
My thoughts -
First the line up. Nothing too unexpected, other than Nasri playing behind Anelka. The defense was what I expected, especially with Sagnol out. Coupet in goal, Abidal, Thuram, Gallas, Clerc along the back line. The holding midfielders - Toulalan and Makelele, no surprise with Ribery and Malouda on the wings. The young Nasri sitting behind Anelka was a bit of the surprise. While I had suggested that would be a good combo, but not sure the 19 year old was ready to be given the defacto role of #10 where the comparisons to Zidane would only mount (both are of Algerian decent, both from Marseille, both play the offensive midfield role). Unlike playing in a friendly against Austria this was a qualifying match against the a World Cup 1/4 finalists, a team that was going to pack in the defensive side of the park.
Thoughts on the game - overall the French dominated the play, Ukraine, much to be expected sat back looking for the counter and really looking for a draw and the valuable point, knowing that France need to come to Kiev on the last day of qualifiers. This appeared to work in the first half. France built up the play from the back, but could not crack the final 20 - 24 yards. What was telling was seeing the French carry up the ball and Ukraine sending one player to press while the other 9 dropped deep into coverage. More remarkable was every time a pass went to an offensive player, the Ukraine marker would be instantly upon the play. This broke any rhythm France had in their offensive end. On the other side, it was clear that Ukraine would be dangerous on set pieces, something France MUST figure out if it is to build and contend for the Euro. An early set piece by Ukraine saw a wide open Yezerskiy escape Abidal only to miss on a highly difficult cross (not sure what Abidal was doing, on the replay it was evident he just allowed the Ukrainian to stroll right down the penalty box), but the danger of a set piece goal remained. The Ukraine also looked dangerous on corners, with France marking tentatively and apparently without any urgency.
The second half was an entirely different story, the pressure from Les Bleus started to show and the Urkainian defense appeared to tire and lose their discipline. The Ribery goal was similar to his first goal for the French against Spain in the World Cup, he beat the defense on what appeared to be an off side trap and found himself one on one against the keeper. It has to be said that his first touch of a great through ball by Makelele is what made the goal. However, there were three Urkainian defenders that were beaten by the solo run from Ribery....apparent tired legs. France stuck quickly after that with a nice piece of work from "L'enfant Terrible" of French football - Anelka. He too took a through ball from the midfield and with a piece of individual skill flicked the ball over his head and his defender to open up the angle for a deadly left footed strike that left he keeper no chance. At that point the game was academic, only a last minute run and strike by Ribery that skimmed the outside post could have changed the score sheet to 3-0.
France won what was a deserved victory. While Ukraine was playing for the draw they did have some dangerous moments. In the first half only the last ditched efforts of Abidal saved Coupet from a point blank shot as well as set pieces.
- Coupet - Made a couple of important interventions on crosses as well as on a header on a corner kick early in the match. Otherwise was not called upon to make any spectacular saves. As usual, very steady as the French back stop. Grade: B+
- Abidal - Huge mistake on the first half free kick, how he allowed his man to go to goal completely unabated is beyond me. Made up for it with a strong intervention inside his penalty area, and demonstrated his willingness and ability on the offensive end. His speed and runs created some major problems for the Ukrainian defense. Grade: B-, (have to give him the B- due to what could have been a very costly lapse in marking on the first half free kick.)
- Gallas - Was not 100% but did enough to hold down the middle of the french defense with Thuram. Not called upon to do too much. Grade B
- Thuram - The "boss" at the back. However the "boss" is showing his age. While still hugely talented and intelligent, does not have the legs any more to make up for mistakes. Was beaten at times to balls he would have easily controlled 3-5 years ago. Still takes perfect runs to balls and is always in good position. Grade B
- Clerc - Quiet game, not called upon too much. Did play well defensively, almost got to a Nasri free kick at the start of the second half. While he will not make anyone forget Sagnol, he is a solid player and will develop. Grade B- (did well defensively but lacking on offense)
- Makelele - As always the engine of the team. Was tireless on defense, tackled hard, and was the genesis of the first goal with a brilliant through ball from inside the half way line, even made some dangerous runs at the defense of Ukraine. Grade A- (due in large part to his offensive contributions)
- Toulalan - Also played a solid game along side Makelele. He did a wonderful job bridging the defense and offense, even attempting some long distance shots. Grade B +
- Malouda - Started off the match strong, posing a real threat on the wing. Had a golden opportunity early in the second half to opening up the score but rather than shooting with his weaker right foot he tried to center the ball to Anelka. Did offer the ball to Anelka on the second goal. But overall was not the decisive factor. Grade B
- Ribery - Became stronger as the game wore on. First half he showed some rust from his international absence. Made a perfect run and perfect first touch to open the score, and could have had his brace had his shot in the dying minutes been a few inches inside. Grade B+
- Nasri - Solid game, really showed strength versus defenders, dangerous on the dribbles and passes. Not bad for a 19 year old. Grade B+
- Anelka - A year ago if you had told me Anelka may become France's #1 striker I would have chuckled. But on his current form that is just what he may become. With Trezeguet falling out of favor, Henry still injured, Saha not 100% and Cisse working his way into form, Anelka has demonstrated that he oozes with talent. He is dangerous all over the pitch, is not afraid to shoot from anywhere in or around the penalty area, can make his own chances and can take on defenders. His goal was a piece of individual skill and he could have had another on a shot from the top of the 18 yard box. He brings a different element than Titi in that he is a bit more of an workman like striker. He is not the speedster or smooth striker that Henry is, but he makes the most of any opportunity...like a world class stiker should. It will be interesting to see what Domenech does when Henry returns. But for now, Anelka is the #1 striker for les Bleus. Grade - A-