The rain came to Donetsk last night, and by the end of the evening a dark cloud had settled over Ukraines hopes of getting through to the quarter-finals of the European Championships that they are co-hosting this summer. There had been murmurs that this team might not be capable of getting past the first hurdle of the competition, but whatever negativity surrounded this team dissipated in the course of forty-odd minutes last week as they came from behind to beat Sweden thanks to two goals from Andriy Shevchenko. Last night, however, a bubble burst with a commanding performance from France, who scored two goals in four minutes to leap to the top of Group D of the competition with a game left to play.
First, though, mother nature had her say. The heavens opened shortly before kick-off in the form of a spectacular electrical storm, but safety considerations had to trump all others and after just four minutes of play in pouring, pouring rain and with concerns rising that these conditions were not safe, the players were withdrawn to the dressing rooms and the crowd to the back of the stand for fear of getting struck by lightning. It was fully fifty-five minutes before play resumed with a drop ball, and in the intervening time speculation was rife that the match would have to be abandoned and replayed the following day – circumstances unprecedented in this tournament. Eventually, though, with the rain having cleared and the hammer of the Gods having moved elsewhere, normal service was resumed, with the kick-off time of the following match between England and Sweden pushed back by fifteen minutes so that the watching millions could see both on the television.
When we finally did get back under way, we saw a considerably more polished French performance than they could manage against England earlier in the week. Gael Clichy replaced Patrice Evra and Jeremy Menez came in for Florent Malouda, a shuffling of the pack which hinted at coach Laurent Blancs dissatisfaction at his team’s failure to grind England down before. This, considering the fearsome atmosphere in the Donbass Arena, was cool, calm and collected from his team, and those who wrote them off after their first match may now even be reconsidering their position. The first half was, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the disruption, a little disjointed. France dominated possession but continued to look a little flat when they got within shooting range of the Ukrainian goal. The home side, meanwhile, seemed reasonably content to allow the French team to dictate the terms of engagement and sought primarily to try and sting them on the break. Chances came at either end, to Shevchenko at one and Menez at the other, but a goalless half-time score was a reasonable reflection upon forty-five minutes that France had dominated without often applying pressure that would be considered intolerable.
The opening stages of the second half saw France step up the pace a little and after fifty-six minutes they took the lead through taking a leaf straight from Ukraines book. The home side had just had a chance at one end of the pitch but France broke swiftly and effectively through Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, who combined tidily before finding Jeremy Menez, whose low shot was beautifully placed past Pyatov in the Ukraine goal. The previously boisterous crowd was suddenly quietened and two minutes later France doubled their lead when Benzema found Yohan Cabaye on the edge of the penalty area and his shot was enough to effectively kill the game stone dead. It has previously been a feature of this tournament for teams that race into a lead to find themselves ultimately stumbling towards a win, but France had no such difficulties last night. Having closed the game down, Cabaye had the best chance of the rest of the second half with a shot that thudded out off the post, but Ukrainian shoulders had dropped, the self-belief that had come flooding back with their come-back against Sweden last week vanishing with the two French goals as quickly as it had arrived. By the closing minutes of the game, there was something quite excruciating about the extent to which France were in control. Ukraine were beaten, and were beaten well.
The problem for the co-hosts is now that of how they lift themselves for a final group match against England that they have to win. In the closing stages of their match, there seemed to be an element of the home crowd that was jeering the team a little, and this is the sort of atmosphere that they could well do without next week against a team that will be considerably more confident after its antics yesterday evening. With a third home match to come against a limited team, it would be absurd to write Ukraine off solely on the basis of this performance, but they may not find that picking themselves up from this defeat psychologically might be something of a challenge. France, meanwhile, moved into second gear last night and it was an ominous sight. The play a Sweden team that is now out of the competition in their next match and provided some ammunition for the theory that they will provide a very stiff test indeed for whoever they face in the quarter-finals. For sheer jaw-dropping drama last night, however, the watching audience would have to wait for the second match of the evening.
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