Following a wretched first-leg showing last Friday, France coach Didier Deschamps could ring the changes for the return clash with Ukraine at the Stade de France on Tuesday.
The Yellow-Blues lead 2-0 from the opener, thanks to goals from Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko, and Les Bleus looked unable to deal with the dual threat posed by the latter and the vibrant Yevhen Konoplyanka out wide.
Equally as worrying for Deschamps is the fact that his side rarely troubled Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, despite his reputation as an unpredictable netminder because of his showings at club level.
As a result, the 45-year-old is expected to make a number of alterations to his starting XI after coming in for criticism for his selections in Kiev.
Such was the poor level of performance last week, French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet took it upon himself to visit the players in person to make them aware of what is at stake, according to ESPN FC.
His impassioned plea appears to have provoked a positive reaction from the side, though, with Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud claiming that the players are now prepared to "die on the field" per ESPN FC.
Les Tricolores are faced with an unenviable task with the two-goal deficit; no side has ever managed to qualify for a major international tournament after losing the first leg of a play-off away from home.
However, to give his side a fighting chance, Deschamps is set to make at least one or two key changes.
The first alteration will be in central defence where the French are expected to welcome back Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, according to L’Equipe (in French and translated as a bilingual). He missed the first match with a knee problem.
Varane will replace the suspended Laurent Koscielny who was sent off at the Olympic Stadium last week for striking Oleksandr Kucher. Koscielny had already conceded a penalty in the game. The talented 20-year-old arguably would have started alongside the Arsenal man had he been fit in Kiev, but he was not risked.
Eric Abidal played in place of the Real youngster last week but his poor showing may well find him being the second change made from the first leg.
The 34-year-old struggled to cope with the attacking threats offered by Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side and after a few performances for club side AS Monaco in which he has shown his age, questions are now being asked at international level, too.
In line to replace him is Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho who has found himself out of favour in recent months after being a regular during Deschamps’ early tenure.
Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna have strong cases to start on either side of the defence following Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra’s below-par performances last week. Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko were allowed to run amok and neither player looked able to cope.
However, it would be risky for Deschamps to replace his entire back four ahead of the game with some continuity needed. Changes are likely to be made elsewhere, but Debuchy and Evra may well find themselves retained for the return clash.
Certainly if the former World Cup and European Championship-winning midfielder is to change one of them, it will be Debuchy as Evra has the experience necessary to lead the side in times of difficulty.
Instead the next change will likely come further up the field, bypassing central midfielders Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba who were exempt from criticism following Friday’s non-performance from France.
Samir Nasri found himself on the receiving end of plenty of frustration and may well pay for his inept showing at the Olympic Stadium. Much was made of the decision to drop Olympique de Marseille’s Mathieu Valbeuna in favour of the Manchester City man and Deschamps does not look set to make the same mistake twice.
Loic Remy’s performance was far from exemplar—the same goes for Bayern Munich’s FIFA Ballon d’Or candidate Franck Ribery—but few of Les Bleus’ players shone in Kiev.
Ribery is integral to this French side, though, and the possibility of him being dropped is a non-starter for a game of this magnitude. Remy will perhaps benefit from the fact that there are very few wide men in Deschamps’ squad and will keep his place.
The other possibility is that Yohan Cabaye is brought in to steady the midfield, enabling France to control proceedings better from the middle of the park. Having the Newcastle man sitting further back would allow Matuidi to assume a role more similar to the one he plays so well in for club side Paris Saint-Germain. Pogba would also be given space to roam, which will bring him into the attacking play when possible.
Finally, who is to lead the line for the hosts? Either in the middle of a three-man attack or at the point of the same 4-2-3-1 that was exhibited last week, Giroud looks likely to start over Benzema once again.
The Arsenal man struggled greatly in Ukraine but that was more down to a lack of service than a truly poor performance on his part. Deschamps has shown the courage to admit that he was wrong in favouring Karim Benzema for so long, even when the Real Madrid man was struggling for form, by giving Giroud his chance.
Benzema has hardly shown himself to be in better form lately, despite his goals against Australia and Finland prior to last Friday’s match, so Giroud will surely get the chance to prove that he is as good as his word and give it everything in Paris.
Should the predicted changes be implemented, particularly to enable a change in style, then France have a chance of an early goal opening this tie up. But in order to have any real hope of progressing, a clean sheet is of vital importance, something Les Bleus have done just once all qualification campaign.
They will also need to exploit Ukraine's lack of discipline, something that was evident last week despite Koscielny's red card being the obvious flashpoint of the encounter so far.
Deschamps needs to be bold on Tuesday in order for France to overcome history as well as themselves, but there is also the considerable danger in making too many changes and fielding a side too unfamiliar to handle the enormity of the occasion.
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