World Cup Play-Offs: Can 'Worst Team in History' France Turn It Around?

Nick MillerFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2013

KIEV, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 15: Ukraine's Andriy Yarmolenko scores the goal from penalty kick during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier Play-off First Leg soccer match between Ukraine and France at the Olympic Stadium on November 15, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images)
Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images

Sweden v Portugal has the clash of the egos. Iceland v Croatia has the potential for feet-sweeping romance. Romania v Greece will probably feature a quite "heroic" rearguard from the Greeks, if you're into that sort of thing.

There are also assorted "home" friendlies, with England facing Germany and the Republic of Ireland travelling to Poland for Martin O'Neill's second game in charge alongside Roy Keane.

However, the real game to watch on Tuesday evening will be France v Ukraine in the Stade de France. The French go into the home leg 2-0 behind after Roman Zozulya and a penalty from Andriy Yarmolenko (given for a clumsy foul by Laurent Koscielny, who was later sent off) gave Ukraine a terrific win in Kiev on Friday.

It didn't go down well in France. L'Equipe declared that Les Bleus were "in a real nightmare," wondered whether this team was the "worst in history" and that it was a "real black evening to forget."

Hardly surprising, either—if they don't turn the result around, this will be the first time France haven't qualified for a major tournament since 1994, when Gerard Houllier blamed David Ginola for their final game defeat to Bulgaria.

Their prospects of overturning the result aren't exactly backed enthusiastically, either. L'Equipe said it would be a "miracle" if they got through, while 90 per cent of La Parisien readers said they wouldn't make it.

KIEV, UKRAINE - NOVEMBER 15:  France coach Didier Deschamps looks on during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier Play-off First Leg soccer match between Ukraine and France at the Olympic Stadium on November 15, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Adam Nurkiewi
Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images

"We took a hit today. This was a bad result, but there's a second match and we shall see what happens in that one," France coach Didier Deschamps said after the game, quoted by the Indepedent. "We didn't come to play for a draw or just defend."

Perhaps they should have, since taking a 0-0 scoreline back to Paris would have been perfectly acceptable. Indeed, perhaps this is the only time when the French might have benefited from having Roy Hodgson as their manager.

They were going for the win in Kiev, but they will most certainly have to go all out on Tuesday. What will be interesting is to see how a French side whose recent performances in tournaments can be accurately filed under "erratic" will perform under this sort of pressure.

And it's not just pressure they will have to cope with. Ukraine's defence is tight as a drum, having conceded only four goals in their qualifying group, although that number is perhaps slightly exaggerated by the low quality of attacking from their opponents. England finished on top but could only manage one goal over two games against the Ukrainians.

"It's not as if they were more determined than we were [but] they out-muscled us with their physical approach,” said Karim Benzema, as quoted by the Daily Mirror.

"Theoretically speaking, we are the better team. It's not just about talent, though. The physical aspect is important, too."

Deschamps is faced with some interesting decisions as well. Will Benzema be recalled after he preferred Loic Remy wide of Olivier Giroud for the first game? Will he place such reliance on the English-based players in his squad (eight were involved on Friday, leading to much criticism)? Who will come in for Koscielny?

France face the prospect of this being their final competitive game in more than two-and-a-half years, since they will not have to qualify for the Euro 2016 tournament they are hosting.

So what will win out: their need to attack or the nerves and pressure that will surely engulf them?

Whatever, it promises to be a frantic encounter. Cancel all other plans and tune in.