France vs. Ukraine Review: 5 Important Lessons from Friday's Match
It was one of the more bizarre matches in recent memory—nearly suspended due to inclement weather, with rains so fierce that the match was called off after less than five minutes due to severe thunderstorms.
Within minutes of that, sheets of driving rain had produced severe water logging on the pitch. It looked for all the world as if the Donetsk weather patterns would set France and Ukraine at a disadvantage in regards to their Group D rivals.
Were the match to be replayed on Saturday, as had to be the case, the two teams would have had one fewer day to recuperate ahead of their final group stage match—a terrible liability.
But the storm abated, the match resumed, and France looked as if they hadn't skipped a beat despite all the hiccups, torturing Ukraine for most of the match with a dizzying medley of one-touch passing, excellent movement, and, well, Franck Ribery down the left flank.
They deserved their 2-0 victory, which sent them to the top of Group D, where they maintain a slim advantage over England. Both have four points (to Ukraine's three and Sweden's zero), but France possess a superior goal differential, plus-2 to England's plus-1.
Here are five of the most important lessons learned from Friday's match.
France's Attack Finally Awakens
Despite all of their well-worked movement in the first half, brought to a near-crescendo with Jeremy Menez's well-taken goal that was called back because of offside, France once more looked as if they would squander all their pretty passing without the requisite final product.
Then came the 53rd minute, and the latest foray by Franck Ribery down the left corridor, which has become a second home to him in recent weeks. (While we'd seen him work his magic down the flanks for five seasons with Bayern Munich, it had been too long since he'd translated that work rate to the national level.)
Ribery outmuscled his markers and powered down the left wing before sending a left-footed pass to Karim Benzema, who looked up and picked out the arriving Jeremy Menez to his right.
Menez collected his pass with an excellent first touch that saw him past his defender, and he launched a terrific left-footed shot past Andriy Pyatov and into the back of the net.
For all the individual quality of Samir Nasri's strike for France on Monday against England (that goal had also seen Ribery involved, with a little layoff for the City midfielder), the first goal against Ukraine was the first time we'd seen Blanc's implementation of attractive attacking play rewarded with a collective goal at the major international level.
From that moment onwards, France were in the ascendancy. The levees had officially broken.
Just three minutes later (56'), Yohan Cabaye got his first-ever goal in France colors. Benzema once again played the provider, and after seeing the ball take a lucky bounce off his defender, Cabaye turned and sent a well-placed left-footed drive into the right corner of goal.
Les Bleus threatened a third, but two turned out to be all they'd need to win their first match in a major competition since the semifinal victory over Portugal in the 2006 World Cup.
The Defence Is Coming Along
Adil Rami (back turned to us) and Philippe Mexes have had their fair share of critics in recent months, which makes the clean sheet against Ukraine all the more impressive from their perspective.
Blanc's central defense has been one of the hottest talking points so far at the Euros, with many a pundit clamoring for the inclusion of Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny, normally at the expense of Mexes.
Whereas Mexes dealt with injury and intermittent playing time during a difficult second half of the season at AC Milan before arriving at the French camp in May a few pounds overweight, Koscielny was hailed as one of the best defenders in the Premier League this past season.
But Blanc has steadfastly remained with the partnership that saw Les Bleus to the top of their qualifying group. And against Ukraine, it finally showed signs that it could work consistently.
There were worrisome signs—Andriy Shevchenko had a clear chance on goal in the first half, shirking Rami's marker and collecting brilliantly on his chest before firing a venomous volley toward Hugo Lloris—but by the end of the match, France were assured at the back.
That was helped once more by Mathieu Debuchy on the right. The Lille defender has been one of the surprises of the Euros so far, and while he found his forays into the opposing half somewhat mitigated this time around—he'd been superb in attack against England—he was terrific in defense.
Debuchy was joined by Gael Clichy, who took over from Patrice Evra at left-back. Blanc said that he picks Clichy or Evra based upon the team France is facing, and on Friday Clichy was excellent.
Reassuring in defense, dangerous when getting forward, the Manchester City defender earned himself some major points ahead of France's final group stage match against Sweden on Tuesday.
Jeremy Menez Must Keep His Head
His goal was very well taken, but Blanc should be worried about Menez's discipline (or lack thereof) during the match.
After earning a yellow card in the 40th minute, Menez very nearly got himself another on the stroke of halftime, when he elbowed into the back of a Ukrainian player.
Referee Bjorn Kuipers did not deem the offense a bookable one, however, and Menez was allowed to keep his spot on the pitch.
He made good on his second chance, opening the scoring just minutes into the second half, but Blanc will likely have a word with the 25-year-old Parisian on his on-field comportment.
It very nearly cost France dearly.
Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema Were Excellent
Despite failing to get his name on the score sheet, Benzema was terrific leading the line for France in their 4-2-3-1 formation.
He had made a habit of dropping deep in France's first match against England—almost too frequently, several pundits complained.
But on Friday he was much more dynamic up top, as his two assists showed all too well. It was Benzema's eye for a pass (he had 15 assists in all competitions this past season for Real Madrid), more so than his deadly finishing touch, that made the biggest difference against Ukraine.
Benzema has looked very comfortable pairing with attacking midfielder Samir Nasri thus far—they're both part of the heralded "Generation '87" that won gold at the 2004 U-17 European Championships—and of course set up yet another of those '87 members, Jeremy Menez, with the first goal on the day.
Nasri might well be called the conductor in midfield—he moves about playing in passes and bringing teammates into play—but Ribery is by far the most dangerous man on the flanks.
For whatever reason, the Bayern Munich man has looked reborn in the past month while donning the national colors. After going more than two years without a goal for France, and looking a shell of his dynamic self on the flanks, Ribery has been back at his best.
He was the architect behind that Menez goal, and he consistently put the Ukrainian defense under pressure with his scintillating forays down the left flank. Expect more of the same against Sweden, who aren't exactly brimming with pace at the full-back positions.
Yann M'Vila Should Be Ready to Start Against Sweden
After spraining his right ankle just minutes into France's penultimate pre-Euros friendly against Serbia, it was feared that Yann M'Vila might miss the upcoming competition entirely.
Thankfully, that wasn't the case. M'Vila dedicated himself toward getting fit as fast as possible, and made a rapid recovery in the days leading up to France's June 11 opener against England.
He was an unused substitute for that match, but Blanc brought him on for the last 22 minutes of the Ukraine match. With France leading 2-0, and the outcome not really in doubt, it was the perfect opportunity to get M'Vila an extended period of playing time ahead of what will likely be an increased role on Tuesday against Sweden.
M'Vila played higher up the pitch than normal against the co-hosts. With Alou Diarra at his serene best in central midfield, the Rennes youngster was allowed to push forward more frequently and put his uncanny distribution—seen best on an inch-perfect pass to Menez on the right wing—to great effect.
If France are to push on to the quarterfinals—a victory against the Swedes would assuage all potential doubts—then M'Vila will certainly be called upon to play a key role. Therefore, those 22 minutes against Ukraine could be some of the most important of the competition from a French perspective, if they indeed help him get some of his match sharpness back.