World Cup play-offs: It's all over, France

FIRST LEG

UKRAINE 2 (Roman Zozulia 61, Andriy Yarmolenko 82-pen)

FRANCE 0

Forget Portugal. Forget Greece. And please do forget about England. This was the biggest shock to the system because the old system is being overhauled.

After a night of pure French farce, Didier Deschamps' dozing cavaliers are on the brink of being bundled out of a tournament that an entire generation believe is their birthright.

A generation of Les Bleus raised on Zizou and Thierry Henry and buoyed by World Cup 98, Euro 2000 and the near-miss of 2006 are now contemplating a crisis of identity. They are preening peacocks no more. They are plodding pedestrians.

Deschamps has encouraged a youthful evolution of his squad, bringing through the likes of Paul Pogba who was probably his nation's most productive performer in the 2-0 loss in the Ukraine Saturday morning. But such a positive philosophy will not be enough.

France need Saint Jude in the dugout - the patron saint of lost causes.

Much of the pre-play-offs attention focused on the battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but a fellow Fifa Ballon d'Or nominee has been unfairly overlooked.

Franck Ribery's form for club and country has been peerless in the last 12 months, lifting Bayern Munich to a treble and a transitional French side to the cusp of World Cup qualification.

But Ukraine proved a bridge too far. Ribery was rubbed out Saturday morning.

Barring a miracle in Paris next week, one of the brightest talents of world football will not be permitted to shine in Rio. Ribery and company are on their way home for the second leg on Wednesday morning (Singapore time). And in all likelihood, they'll be staying there.

HURTING

Deschamps is hurting. The pain of humiliating defeat is no less discomforting the second time round. The last time France failed to qualify for a major tournament was back in 1994. They were defeated by Bulgaria in Paris. Deschamps was on the pitch that night.

He'll be in the dugout next week. Different job, different stadium, but if the outcome is the same, the vitriol will be no less poisonous.

Ukraine not only overpowered France on their Kiev turf, they also whitewashed them on the whiteboard. Mykhaylo Fomenko's rigid formation contrasted sharply with France's lackadaisical approach.

Ribery was effectively wheel-clamped by a Ukrainian midfield superbly marshalled by Taras Stepanenko. Ribery has been called a Ballon d'Or winner in waiting. He might have to wait a little longer.

Samir Nasri's resurrection at Manchester City has earned Manuel Pellegrini some desperately needed praise, but that form was not replicated in Kiev. He displayed none of the confidence and attacking verve of Yevhen Konoplyanka on the other side as France's creative options proved negligible.

But Fomenko's masterstroke came from paying attention to David Moyes' increasingly obsessive pursuit of Leighton Baines. Like Moyes at Manchester United, he zeroed in on a weakened left side. He targeted Patrice Evra.

The ageing Frenchman has been a terrific servant but the unforgiving march of time is taking its toll on the fullback's legs. If Moyes wasn't entirely convinced of Baines' potential, he will be now.

Andriy Yarmolenko owned the space between Evra and poor Eric Abidal.

Abidal's humbling recovery after a liver transplant is a poignant sports story with the happiest of endings. But Yarmolenko was in no mood to add a sympathetic epilogue. He created chances and scored the late penalty, while Roman Zozulya scored the opener and won the late penalty.

Just as Yarmolenko and Zozulya were first among equals for Ukraine, Evra and Abidal were by no means the only luckless villains in blue jerseys.

Laurent Koscielny picked the worst occasion to revert back to his former self, the inconsistent centre-back who once warmed Arsenal's bench and tested Arsene Wenger's patience.

Run ragged by Zozulya, Koscielny was swatted away for the first goal and then went missing, only to pop up in stoppage time to punch Olexander Kucher and earn a straight red card.

It was the only time Koscielny found his marker.

Now Deschamps faces a must-win second-leg - by at least three goals - without his key centre-back and with a slowing, unreliable backline, a nondescript Nasri and an isolated Loic Remy against opponents blessed with pace and buoyed by the knowledge that they've got one foot in Brazil.

The Parisians will raise the Stade de France roof in a desperate bid to rouse Ribery. He's been a superb campaigner, but he's not Superman.

Saint Jude could not save France now.

For the first time in 20 years, Les Bleus won't be going to the World Cup.


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