France Weather The Storm In Donetsk
The TV pictures showed a long distance shot of the Donbass stadium nestled in the middle of the industrial city of Donetsk. A gunmetal sky, smoking chimneys, pouring rain and amber street lights burning in the early evening gloom. It looked like a portrait of hell. Ukraine, who were fielding the same side that had come from behind to beat Sweden, were set to pit their wits against the much fancied French side.
Just how much benefit would Ukraine gain from their status as co-hosts? Would the addition of Jérémy Ménez (in for the aging Florent Malouda) add some clinical finishing to the attacking threat that the French showed for much of their game against England?
Temperatures in Donetsk had been approaching 90 degrees during the day, but the weather had broken and a rain storm was cooling things down as the players stood in the tunnel. Tymoschuk ruffled Franck Ribery’s hair. Ribery looked annoyed but then again Ribery always looks annoyed.
As the national anthems blared out a huge crack of thunder reverberated around the stadium. A few worried glances were exchanged – in this part of the world, loud bangs related to electricity have lead to significant fallout. “Fifty thousand people used to live here. Now . . .”
After 90 seconds of the game, Phillipe Mexes almost made things very interesting. His overhit backpass had Hugo Lloris struggling under pressure from AndriyVoronin on the increasingly sodden surface. Cheers Phillipe.
Moments later, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers achieved a couple of firsts. Initially, he gave a foul throw – a Law that appeared to have been deleted thus far in this tournament. Then, as the storm overhead broke into full effect, he decided that enough was enough and after less than five minutes of the game he lead the players from the field.
This was Biblical weather. Water flooded down the steps of the stands and onto the pitch. Forked lightning filled the void in the stadium roof. Ukrainian supporters ran for the safety of the concourse. A couple of foolhardy French fans simulated the front crawl laid down amongst the seats. Le banter!
UEFA officials looked concerned. Across the UK, football fans were facing the prospect of being ‘entertained’ by Adrian Chiles, Gareth Southgate and a bemused Patrick Vieira. All eyes were on a team of groundsmen from Ukraine and a supermarket manager from the Netherlands.
Fortunately, modern pitch technology and an improvement in the weather meant that within an hour of walking off the pitch the game was ready to restart. The prospect of the viewing public being subjected to John Champion’s suede shoe fetish for the remainder of the evening had abated.
After a quarter of an hour, the first real sign of attacking intent by the French was demonstrated. Ribery cut in from the left hand side of the Ukrainian half and fed it to Ménez bursting from the opposite flank. His first time finish was past the Ukraine goalkeeper, but celebrations were rightly cut short by the flag of the assistant referee.
The Paris St. Germain player had made his move far too early and was a couple of metres offside, but a marker had been put down.
The co-hosts were relying on solid defence and the counter-attacking threat of the two Andriys – Shevchenko and Voronin – but their first meaningful shot on goal came after almost 25 minutes when Yarmolenko (another Andriy) threatened with a shot that went just outside Lloris’ near post.
This stung the French into action and within a couple of minutes Ménez had two shots on the Ukraine goal which caused consternation amongst the home support. Surely they could not allow the French this kind of space and hope to get anything from the game?
The Ukrainian team responded with a rapid break which ended with Shevchenko drilling a shot against Lloris. The aging legend – who with his goals against Sweden became both the oldest and youngest man to score for Ukraine in European Championship history – showing that he is still a threat at 35.
As the half drew to a close, Mexes once again threatened goal – this time the opposition’s. A Samir Nasri free kick from the left hand side was met with a solid header at the far post which was well saved by Pyatov. The resulting corner was cleared comfortably and in the ensuing break Ménez received the first booking of the game for pulling back Shevchenko as he threatened to break from half way.
Just as the fourth official indicated that there would be a single minute of injury time the referee made a decision which would prove pivotal. Just a few minutes after his first booking, which was generally regarded as “a bit soft”, Ménez lunged in on Selin as he cleared the ball. His foot was high, his studs were showing and he caught his opponent. In the ordinary course of events he would have received an additional yellow card, but Mr Kuipers decided that Ménez deserved the benefit of the doubt and simply told the French man to calm down.
HALF TIME 0-0
Oleg Blohkin, the Ukrainian coach, changed things at the start of the second period bringing on Marko Devic for Voronin, and the early exchanges were encouraging. Within five minutes Ménez had had another shot well saved, but Shevchenko and Tymoschuk both threatened with shots that went narrowly over the French goal.
However, after seven minutes the home side were behind. The impressive Karim Benzema, who had quietly been orchestrating much of the French threat, fed the ball to Ménez who was again coming in from the right hand side. After a neat piece of control with his right foot Ménez swept the ball in at the near post with his left from around 12 metres to make it 1-0 France.
Two minutes later things got worse for the home side. First Selin was booked for a challenge on Rami and then once again Benzema picked up the ball in the centre of the Ukraine half and looked for options. Yohan Cabaye, the Newcastle midfielder who has been instrumental in the rebirth of the Toon, had made a break from his more withdrawn position and received a perfectly weighted ball from the Madrid player. Two touches later the ball was in the back of Ukraine’s net. Lovely stuff, 2-0.
Blohkin reacted soon after bringing on Artem Milevskiy for Serhiy Nazarenko in an attempt to give the Ukraine attack a more physical dimension, but the French continued to provide the greatest threat with Cabaye hitting the post after an extended period of French passing along the edge of the home side’s penalty area.
It was to be his last meaningful contribution as he was withdrawn in the 68th minute to be replaced by Yann M’Vila. At the same time Ukraine played their final throw of the dice bringing on Aliyev for Yarmalenko.
Ménez was withdrawn a few minutes later with Marvin Martin coming on in his stead and then a few minutes after that the influential Karim Benzema was swapped for Olivier Giroud who might be strutting his stuff at the Emirates next season if reports are to be believed.
The second French booking of the game came in the 79th minute when Mathieu Debuchy brought down Konoplianka as he threatened to break towards the French penalty area. Mexes soon followed him into the book as he brought down Milyevski on the edge of the French area, but whilst Ukraine fans crossed their fingers Aliyev blazed the ball into the stands wastefully from the free kick.
With four minutes of normal time remaining Tymoschuk became the second Ukrainian to receive a caution for hacking down Martin at the angle of his own penalty area and Nasri forced a good save as the ball headed to the top corner from the resulting free kick.
The remainder of the game including the added 3 minutes of injury time passed without incident and left France at the top of Group D.
Following England’s win against Sweden later in the evening Ukraine now need to win to progress in the tournament. The question as to whether that will happen will be answered on Tuesday evening in the same arena. Everyone involved will be hoping the electricity will be confined to the pitch.
FULL TIME: 0-2
Ukraine: 12 Pyatov, 2 Selin, 3 Khacheridi, 17 Mykhalyk, 4 Tymoschuk, 9 Gusev, 11 Yarmolenko (Aliyev – 68′), 18 Nazarenko (Milyevski – 60′), 19 Konoplienka, 7 Shevchenko, 10 Voronin (Devic – 46′)
France: 1 Lloris , 2 Debuchy, 4 Rami, 5 Mexes, 22 Clichy, 6 Cabaye (M’Vila – 68′), 11 Nasri, 18 Diarra, 7 Ribery, 10 Benzema (Giroud – 75′), 14 Menez (Martin – 73′ )