France aim to strike balance

Franck Ribery (Getty Images)
Franck Ribery (Getty Images)

Paris - France has to find the right blend between taking risks and not exposing itself to Ukraine's lethal counterattacks when the teams meet in the return match of their World Cup playoff on Tuesday.

France is on the verge of missing out on a major tournament for the first time in 20 years, and no European team having ever qualified through the playoffs after losing the first leg 2-0.

The dilemma is that, while an early goal will settle nerves, attacking flat out early on leaves France exposed to a sucker punch. A Ukraine goal will probably be decisive as it would leave France with a near-impossible task of scoring four goals to go through.

"The best thing to do would be to score as quickly as possible," France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said Monday. "But we'll have to play intelligently and maturely and not go all out" in attack.

Coach Didier Deschamps urged his players to show patience and composure — qualities sorely lacking last Friday.

"Obviously time is against us," Deschamps said. "We'll have to play with a bit of folly but you need to find the right balance, and I don't think Ukraine will be coming just to defend."

France was dominated in the physical challenges by Ukraine and the dire performance led to scathing criticism from the French press.

"After such deception and frustration of course you ask questions of yourself. We're fully aware of the situation," Lloris said. "We'll need an exploit, there's no other word for it. Tomorrow will be a great chance to show we're capable of playing as a team."

Lloris says frank words have been exchanged.

"There have been meetings, truths were told. We have to react and impose our way of playing — and do everything we didn't do on Friday," he said. "We're backs to the wall and we have an obstacle in front of us. What's more we have a two-goal handicap."

Sports daily L'Equipe's front-page headline Monday featured four angry-looking France players and a headline of "La Rage du Desespoir" (The Rage of Despair).

"We're out for revenge. We took a big slap over there," Lloris said. "Ukraine will be determined to hold on to their result but we can make the difference with the talent we have."

If France fails to qualify, it will have an agonizingly long wait before playing another competitive match — since it is automatically qualified for the 2016 European Championship as host.

For Deschamps, who could resign if France does not qualify, destiny is worryingly close to repeating itself.

Twenty years ago, the former midfielder dropped to his knees in disbelief when Emil Kostadinov scored in the last seconds to send Bulgaria to the World Cup. Requiring just one point from final two home games, France lost both.

His task is to get the players' minds focused and find the right words to inspire them.

"We can't dwell on the frustration, we have to move on," he said. "We didn't stand up to them properly in the first game, we will need to tomorrow. But we'll have to do that intelligently and control ourselves."

The match will go to a penalty shootout if the score is 2-0 to France after extra time, but Deschamps has not yet figured out who his takers will be.

"I'm not thinking about that now," he said. "It's something you can decide on the spur of the moment."

The Stade de France turf will not be in great condition because France played New Zealand at rugby less than two weeks ago.

"Of course it's better to have a quality pitch, but that's the way things were programmed," Deschamps said, adding that he hopes the hard-to-please home crowd unite behind the team.

"The fans will be there, the stadium will be full," he said. "We'll need them."

Ukraine coach Mykhailo Fomenko will be without Oleksandr Kucher and Artem Fedetsky through suspension. Shakhtar Donetsk's Yaroslav Rakytsky and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk's Vitaliy Mandziuk are likely to step in.

"I don't think it will be a calm match, it will be difficult for both teams," Fomenko said. "How we play depends on our opponent. If they're aggressive then we will be."

Ukraine has never qualified for a major tournament through the playoffs.

"Of course I'm worried," Fomenko said. "It's not over yet."

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