France 2-0 Ukraine: Ribery v Husiev battle decides the game
After a long rain delay, France took the initiative and went onto win the game comfortably.
Laurent Blanc made two changes. One was a straight swap, with Patrice Evra dropping out and Gael Clichy starting at left-back. Higher up, the introduction of Jeremy Menez at the expense of Florent Malouda meant Samir Nasri moved into a permanent central position, and France switched to a 4-2-3-1.
Oleg Blokhin had said before the tournament that he didn’t have a set first choice XI, and would switch from game to game, but after Ukraine’s famous 2-1 victory over Sweden on Monday, he stuck with the same side.
The first half was heavily affected by the rain delay – the teams returned to the pitch and played very slow football that lacked ambition. In the second half, the game was much more open and interesting.
France’s shift to 4-2-3-1 seemed to make them a better side, with a central orchestrator in Nasri, but also thrust from both flanks. That was very different from in the first game against England, where Nasri was moving inside from the right flank to play that role anyway, but leaving the right flank bare, and making Malouda’s job unclear.
Nasri was marked by Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who had done a similar job on a very different player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, against Sweden. Whereas Ibrahimovic tried to escape Tymoshchuk by moving forward to become a second striker, Nasri naturally dropped deeper into midfield, into a position where Tymoshchuk was scared to follow.
Meanwhile, Serhiy Nazarenko was given the job of tracking Yohan Cabaye, who started in a deeper role but increasingly moved forward and influenced the game in the final third. To complete the clash of midfield triangles, Andriy Voronin dropped onto Diarra, making sure Ukraine weren’t overrun in the middle.
Ukraine tried to play a high line against France, a surprising move considering they don’t have great pace at the back, and France’s three attackers all threaten by getting in behind the defence. That high line was clear even in the four minutes before the rain delay, but Blokin persisted with it throughout the first half.
Ukraine’s strategy was basically to play on the break, although they struggled to get the two (very) wide players involved in the game – the two French full-backs won both those battles. They started playing longer balls to the strikers, and while Voronin was often too concerned with his defensive duties to find space, Andriy Shevchenko worked the channel next to Adil Rami and created a couple of half-chances after diagonal balls.
France looked most likely to score when Benzema moved to the left and linked with Franck Ribery, a combination which had looked promising throughout France’s pre-tournament friendlies. Ribery’s burst of pace combined with Benzema’s simple wall passes got France into good positions, and these moves usually ended with a chance for Menez, who was making runs in behind the defence.
Ribery v Husiev
But the key battle here was Ribery against Oleg Husiev. Put simply, Ribery didn’t want to track back and help defend (which is even more dangerous in a 4-2-3-1 than in a 4-3-3), while Husiev continually made forward runs and then was out of position when Ukraine lost the ball.
This was a little like Cristiano Ronaldo against Lars Jacobsen on Wednesday, and the opening goal – whichever way it went – seemed destined to come from this area of the pitch.
But first, the game needed to become more open, and Blokhin’s decision to replace Voronin with Marko Devic was a big surprise. Devic is more of a natural striker, and while Voronin wasn’t contributing much going forward, his defensive job on Diarra was nullifying France’s midfield advantage. Besides, Ukraine should have been happy with 0-0 – there was no need to gamble.
Devic didn’t drop onto Diarra so quickly, and the game became much more frantic. Ukraine were more confident about their chances going forward, and Shevchenko went close shortly after half-time. France were able to break more swiftly through the centre of the pitch, and down the left.
Ribery comes out on top
That Ribery v Husiev clash was still key – and it could have gone either way. Husiev often overlapped Andriy Yarmolenko energetically, only to not receive a pass when totally unmarked. Had Ukraine been cleverer in the final third, Husiev’s bravery would have won the day.
Instead, Ukraine failed to take advantage of having a man in space, and Ribery’s running with the ball was a huge threat. For the first goal, he hadn’t bothered to track Husiev back, and therefore was in a great position to launch a counter-attack – Tymoshchuk was dragged across, Benzema had time to turn when Ribery slipped him in, and Menez was calm enough to cut inside from the right and finish inside the near post.
At 1-0 up, France played their best football of the tournament. There was a great deal of fluidity about their play – shown by Cabaye venturing into the box for the second goal, and the superb 20-pass move that ended with the Newcastle midfielders hitting the post.
It felt like France could have gone onto score more, but Blanc replaced Cabaye with Yann M’Vila on 68 minutes, a sign he wanted to shut the game down. France were very professional in the final 20 minutes, and won the game comfortably.
Two major parts to this game – first, there was the Ribery v Husiev battle. With neither showing anything like the required defensive discipline, both got freedom to run at the opposition defence. Ribery was excellent with the ball at his feet, but was lucky Ukraine didn’t punish his laziness.
But Blokhin’s half-time change must also be questioned – maybe he wanted to be more ambitious and wasn’t impressed with Voronin’s contribution upfront, but Ukraine didn’t need to win the game. Devic’s lack of defensive work didn’t impact directly on the goal, but the switch made the game much, much more open. That generally favours the better technical side.