I think the beauty of World Cup and Euro qualifiers is that games that you would otherwise not care about take on a huge importance....such as this one. France came out with some urgency, hitting the post twice in the first 10 minutes and were not unlucky in not securing a 1-0 lead early on. But as the first half pressed on it was apparent that Lithuania was not intimidated and were ready to allow the French to lay seige to their goal and defend, looking for the counter to try and steal a goal....which they almost did. After the early barrage of French pressure Lithuania found itself sitting on a golden opportunity in their only foray into French territory when in the 18th minute, Ksanavicius took one two French defenders, turned, somehow got free and curled a dangerous left footed shot that beat Landreau only to smack against the right goal post. The rebound was even more dangerous as it fell into the path of an on rush Lithuanian who inexplicably launched his shot high and wide when he had the entire goal to shoot at. This near fatal strike did not seem to phase Les Bleus as they continue to press on looking for the edge.
They appeared to make the break 12 minutes later when Malouda was second man in on a Ribery cross, only to have brave defending from the Lithuania defender deny him a goal. As well as a lively run from Benzema in the 37th minute only to have his shot skirt the right post.
The second half started much as had the first, with France pressing the Lithuania goal but only finding their finishing lacking. The French were unfortunate to not having 2 penalty kicks awarded after Ribery's kit was cleared pulled in the box and Henry was taken down after making the turn at the penalty spot. Domenech then inserted youngster Ben Afra, demonstrating the importance of winning the match was for Les Bleus. The young Lyon player had a chance to be a hero on a tricky pass from Ribery after he had beaten the keeper but not knowing what to do with a mid level ball Ben Afra tried to strike it home with his boot rather than attempting a diving header. It appeared that the Baltic nation may have once again found playing spoiler to a favorite, just as it had when it drew with the Italians earlier on in the campaign.
But the liberation would be found in the 79th minute when Titi would will his way to finding France a goal. At first it was questionable as to whether or not Ribery was in an off side position but a Lithuania defender clearly kept the play on side. With that goal, not only did Henry put France in a much better position to qualify but it pushed him ahead of French legend Platini to be the top scorer for the French national team with 42 goals. A few minutes later Henry latched on from a brilliant deep ball from Toulalan to increase his overall tally to 43 goals, making the score 2-0. A few minutes later France really should have added a third when Benzema found himself 1 on 1 with the keeper with a wealth of options....he could take it on himself or pass off to a wide open Henry to his right. Instead he tried to be cheeky and chip the keeper only to see a prone Lithuania keeper make a huge double save, one on Benzema and the second on a charging Malouda.
France would milk the rest of the match, with Lithuania conceding defeat. The game proved much more difficult than it should have, but shows what international football is about in modern times...even small nations can give the big teams major headaches. In the end France secured the essential, the full three points.
Some thoughts on the match -
- Benzema - while I remain a fan of Trezeguet and believe he has an important role on the French national team, it is evident that the young player from Lyon has some impressive skills and is a jewel of the future generation for Les Bleus. Granted, he was playing this week versus Faroe Islands and Lithuania, however he demonstrated an ability to take on defenders from the wing as well as from the top of the formation. He has an incredible acceleration and is not afraid to shoot. What he brings that is different than a Trezeguet is his ability to pick up the ball further up the park and carry it to the scoring zone. Manu Petit, commentating, made a good point that we should not get too caught up in the early irrational exuberance surrounding the youngster, but at 19 it appears that he might evolve into the next great French striker.
- Toulalan - another player from Lyon....he had a solid first half but really picked up his game the second half. His energy and tackling allowed France to continually put the pressure on the team from the Baltics. He was the origin of the second goal but putting in a fantastic through ball from deep in the French camp.
- Henry - I will admit that I have been at times critical of the talismatic Frenchman, but in scoring two goals today he not only emerged tops of the French all time scoring list but gave France an important 3 points in the race for the Euros. One could argue that it came against Lithuania but then again goals are goals, and these two might have put France one step closer to qualification.
- French defense - Granted they did not concede a goal, but the first half double miss by Lithuania should never have happened. The first action occurred when two French defenders had shut down the Lithuania striker but somehow allowed him to escape to get off a dangerous shot.
- Domenech's selection - I guess the results speak for themselves, but I question insisting on putting Diarra at right back when his natural position is midfield. I understand why the Arsenal player has played that role at times for his club, mainly due to necessity. However with a player like Sagna on the bench why would he not be the #1 option? The corn rowed defender got a start against Faroe Islands, but not sure why he is not the #1 option with Sagnol out...
- French finishing - Okay they scored the vital 2 goals and hit the post twice....but it should have been easier had they been able to finish. One major aspect is the lack of support from the midfielders in the attacking half. It appears at times that Les Bleus are efficient and clinical at getting the ball into the last 18, but then stand back and wait for the strikers to do the rest, rather than continuing to add support and putting pressure on the defense.