France’s commanding 3-0 victory over Ukraine at the Stade de France on Tuesday confirmed their safe passage to next summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
It was in major doubt after a 2-0 first leg defeat in Kiev last Friday, but overall it was a deserved 3-2 aggregate victory after an epic fightback in Paris.
In coming back from a two-goal deficit to secure their place at the tournament, Les Tricolores preserve an almost 20-year-old qualification record in the process.
Didier Deschamps’ side also become the first ever to recover a two-goal scoreline in order to qualify for a major international tournament.
Mamdou Sakho set Les Bleus on their way with the opener before Karim Benzema gave the hosts a 2-0 half-time lead, wiping out Ukraine’s advantage.
Yevhen Khacheridi’s red card from two yellows less than two minutes into the second period put the Yellow-Blues’ hopes of qualification in jeopardy, before an Oleh Husyev own goal effectively ended them.
Deschamps was brave in making five changes to the side that was beaten in Kiev four days before, but fortune favours the brave and those changes paid off handsomely with the most comprehensive performance under his charge yet.
Mamadou Sakho’s rationale behind his summer transfer window move from French champions Paris Saint-Germain to English Premier League side Liverpool was that his place in the French national team was in danger.
The former PSG captain has been vindicated in his decision to leave Ligue 1 for guaranteed first-team football by scoring one of the three goals that has sent Les Bleus to Brazil. He also had a big role in a second, too.
Brought back into the starting XI by Didier Deschamps who elected to change both starting central defenders, Sakho was excellent at the back alongside the impressive Raphael Varane.
Although Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy’s continued struggles out wide made their job a little more difficult, the Reds’ man and Varane made a huge contribution.
For Sakho, it will be reassuring to know that he has been proved right in his decision over the move.
However, it will be galling for PSG fans who knew his value to see him enjoy such success no longer based in the capital.
This applies to both France and Ukraine as Tuesday’s clash was an almost complete role reversal for the two teams.
Les Bleus showed an insatiable hunger, purpose and direction from the start of the game, just as Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side did in the first leg.
However, the better talent at Didier Deschamps’ disposal told, thanks to rotation on a scale not possible for his opposite number.
Les Tricolores’ coach made five changes from the side beaten 2-0 in Kiev four days previously and, knowing what was on the line, those players duly rose to the challenge laid down to them after plenty of soul-searching.
The key period in the match was the opening 20 minutes when France threw absolutely everything at Ukraine in search of an early goal.
All over the pitch, the team's hunger was evident and every player was getting involved where possible.
The first few exchanges immediately got the Stade de France on Les Tricolores’ side and their vocal support arguably intimidated their visitors and contributed towards their inhibited style of play.
It would have also come as a boost for the hosts to have underlined their supreme ability so emphatically early on, giving Les Bleus the confidence they needed as the game progressed.
It was something that I mentioned in my pre-match preview; Ukraine’s massive lack of discipline and composure cost them ultimately.
They looked rattled from the start in Paris and, despite the commanding two-goal lead they brought into the game, had shown signs of such aggression in the first leg.
Yevhen Khacheridi’s two yellow cards in the space of two minutes (albeit in different halves) perfectly demonstrated this.
The suspensions of Oleksandr Kucher and Artem Fedetiskiy from the first leg meant that, over the two legs, the Yellow-Blues lost three of their first-choice defensive unit, which was too much to overcome.
After suffering so much criticism in the wake of a 1698-minute international goal drought, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema finally came big at the most vital moment possible for Didier Deschamps.
The France coach was finally vindicated for his faith in Benzema as the 25-year-old netted a crucial second at the Stade de France.
Moments before that he had a goal disallowed for offside, one that should have stood while his actual goal was debatable looking at the replay, and he looked reinvigorated along with his teammates.
Benzema now has three goals in his last four matches with Les Bleus, something that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
Over the two legs, Ukraine were more than a match for France at times.
However, the Yellow-Blues’ lack of considerable depth, particularly in defence, told by the end of the second leg in Paris.
In Mykhaylo Fomenko’s starting XI, there is plenty of quality all over the pitch, especially out wide, but not enough of it outside to ensure that they could last the full two legs with their lack of discipline.
When the Ukraine coach needed to make game-changing substitutions, he had few options to choose from.
Deschamps, on the other hand, had plenty and utilised them from the start of the match as well as during.