Key Battles That Will Shape France's Clash with Ukraine

Jonathan JohnsonFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 15:  Blaise Matuidi of France battles with Petri Pasanen of Finland during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifying Group I match between France and Finland at the Stade de France on October 15, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

France face Ukraine in Kiev on Friday in the first leg of their 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying play-off and are looking to grab the upper hand with a positive result. On paper, it might look like the matchup heavily favours Les Bleus, but in reality, it will not be a straightforward task for the visitors.

Didier Deschamps' side won 2-0 the last time the two sides met in Donetsk during Euro 2012 when Laurent Blanc was still in charge. However, this Yellow-Blue side have matured since then and arguably pose a greater threat this time around.

All over the park, there are some intriguing battles that will decide who ultimately wins this tie. Mykhaylo Fomenko's side are formidable at home, but the French boast an excellent overall record against their Eastern European hosts.

Here are some of Friday’s key battles that will go a long way to deciding the ultimate result of this tie.

 

 

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 15:  Patrice Evra of France battles with Teemu Tainio of Finland during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifying Group I match between France and Finland at the Stade de France on October 15, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Julian Finn
Julian Finney/Getty Images

France's full-backs against Ukraine's wide men 

One area in which Ukraine will fancy that they can get at France will be through their dangerous duo of wide men, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko. Deschamps' side have struggled to adequately fill the right-back slot, while Patrice Evra appears to be the best option on the left despite some questionable recent form.

Given that the Manchester United man loves to charge forward and Mathieu Debuchy—the likely starter on the right—is also very attack-minded, Fomenko will be confident that his side can exploit Les Bleus on the flanks with the likes of Oleh Husyev backing up his wide men. 

It will be crucial for France to contain Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko in particular, but both like to switch the play from one side to the other. Impairing their ability to do so will disable Ukraine's two greatest threats and compromise the supply line to the strikers in the middle.

This must be Deschamps' side's priority at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.

 

 

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 15:  Paul Pogba of France has his shirt pulled by Roman Eremenko of Finland during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifying Group I match between France and Finland at the Stade de France on October 15, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by
Julian Finney/Getty Images

France midfield talent vs. Ukraine midfield familiarity

Secondly, the battle in the middle of the park will also be pivotal. France's midfield is arguably their strongest position, and they possess an abundance of talent, particularly in the more central positions.

There is an argument that Deschamps could in fact look to replicate Paris Saint-Germain’s successful 4-3-3 formation under Blanc at present by adding Newcastle United’s Yohan Cabaye to the starting line-up. 

However, it is unlikely that Blanc will want to change things too drastically ahead of such an important away clash, although the three-man midfield would give Les Bleus a considerable amount of control. 

That central midfield unit will also come into contact with Ukraine's well-organised and solid defensive block that is heavily influenced by a spine of Shakhtar Donetsk players familiar with each other at club level.

Although the hosts are less likely to dominate possession, they are adept at destroying the play.

The French midfield will need to keep the ball away from Fomenko's ball winners in order to create the necessary chances to score and to also make the most of a lack of mobility in the middle.

 

 

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 11:  Vyacheslav Shevchuk of Ukraine and Andriy Pyatov of Ukraine in discussion after the FIFA 2014 World Cup Group H qualifying match between England and Ukraine at Wembley Stadium on September 11, 2012 in London, England.  (Ph
Clive Mason/Getty Images

French attack against Andriy Pyatov

While France's full-backs will arguably have been pinpointed by Ukraine as a weak area, Les Bleus in turn will be targeting Yellow-Blue goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov. 

The Shakhtar netminder is error-prone at club and international level, and he could be a source of unexpected chances for the visitors looking to snatch a valuable away goal. 

Pyatov's shaky performances have come to the fore in this season's Champions League and Shakhtar, as well as Ukraine, would arguably benefit from a less erratic goalkeeper. 

Olivier Giroud will be expected to put the 29-year-old under consistent pressure, as will Karim Benzema and Loic Remy if given the chance.

 

 

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 26:  Hugo Lloris of France during a FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier between France and Spain at Stade de France on March 26, 2013 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Yevhen Seleznyov vs. France defence and Hugo Lloris 

Ukraine's main attacking threat comes in the form of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk's Yevhen Seleznyov. 

The 28-year-old has nine goals in 44 games to date, so he is hardly prolific. However, if given the service by Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko, he will find the back of the net.

Up against an ageing Eric Abidal, Laurent Koscielny's role will be crucial for Deschamps' side. However, the veteran defender will also relish playing alongside someone who is less cumbersome than Ricardo Carvalho, who partners him at club level for AS Monaco. 

Roman Zozulya provides a good option off the bench, but Fomenko's best chance of goals will be Seleznyov.

 

 

French big game composure against Ukrainian atmosphere

The game could simply some down to who handles the occasion better though.

Under Fomenko, the atmosphere surrounding this Ukraine side has lifted from the gloom that had set in under Oleh Blokhin at Euro 2012. 

That increased optimism will manifest itself in a raucous home crowd that will intimidate the French.

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 15:  Karim Benzema of France celebrates scoring his teams third goal with team mates, Patrice Evra, Yohan Cabaye and Franck Ribery of France during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifying Group I match between France and Finland at the
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Les Bleus holding their nerve to take at least a point from Kiev is vital and, given their collective big match experience, they should be able to. 

Do that and Deschamps and his side can take a big advantage into the home leg in Paris next week.