The Ukrainian national anthem, “Ukraine has not yet Perished,” rang out raucously in the driving rain ahead of the team’s game against France, yet the co-hosts could not summon a performance to match the title. In this contest, French quality snuffed out the opponents’ passion.
France coach Laurent Blanc tweaked his lineup ahead of the game, dropping veterans Patrice Evra and Florent Malouda in favor of Gael Clichy and Jeremy Menez, hoping to find sharper movement in the attacking third. Blanc knew his team had mustered 15 shots on goal against England yet created few clear-cut chances. His changes would prove to be vindicated.
The game was quite literally a stop-start affair. After four minutes, Bjorn Kuipers, the Dutch referee, took the unlikely step of suspending play as a storm of biblical proportions drenched the field to the extent that the ball stopped rolling.
The players returned after almost an hour break, but the fervor of the Ukrainian fans was barely dampened. They whistled when the French were in possession and bellowed with excitement whenever and wherever their team touched the ball.
Ukraine’s counterattacking game plan was tried and tested from its emotional opening-game victory against Sweden. It permitted France to play its way up the field, while Ukraine attempted to launch drives down the flanks through Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka. The world’s most famous Ukrainian, Andriy Shevchenko, was as selfless as he was creative when holding up the ball.
France had not been beaten in its past 22 games, and it had the best of the first half. A disciplined Franck Ribery and enthusiastic Samir Nasri buzzed around, attempting to slide angular balls through to Karim Benzema and Menez.
Menez’s Euro debut was erratic. He came closest to opening the scoring in the first half after Ribery’s presence panicked the Ukrainian defense, but his rushed shot crashed against goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov’s legs. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder was also fortunate to avoid being sent off after he caught Yevgen Selin with his studs, having already been booked for an earlier foul on Shevchenko.
In the 33rd minute, Sheva provided the tournament with another piece of timeless poetry, rolling back the years by peeling off Adil Rami to slip in behind the French defense. Driving in on goal, Shevchenko thrashed a half-volley at Hugo Lloris, who was relieved to be able to parry away the shot.
The Ukrainian legend sparked a strong start to the second half, finishing off a raid with a drive that flew just past the post from distance. With the Ukrainians emboldened, the game became more open, and once the French were able to repel the pressure, they opened the scoring via a counter of their own. Knowing the opponents were overcommitted, Ribery broke free, finding Menez in space via Benzema. This time the midfielder made no mistake, driving the ball low into the left-hand corner.
It took just three minutes for France to grab a second goal. Again Benzema was the provider as he peeled off deep to start the move, feeding Yohan Cabaye on the edge of the box. The Newcastle playmaker was strong enough to hold off Oleg Gusev and roll the ball home with panache.
Cabaye almost scored again after a sustained and intricate piece of French team play, but his thumping shot came back off the post. Two goals were enough to knock the stuffing out of the Ukrainian threat; the home fans had been silenced. Or, perhaps, they had chosen to save their energy for Tuesday’s crucial matchup against England.
The French make for bad guests at last
Before this victory, France was winless when playing a host country in a major tournament, suffering four defeats and one draw. The game was also its first tournament win since July 5, 2006, when a Zinedine Zidane's penalty sunk Portugal.
Man of the Match
Ribery: The Bayern star has struggled of late in a French shirt, preferring swashbuckling yet futile solo runs to team play. Against the energetic Ukrainians, he demonstrated a discipline that fused with his pace to provide the extra midfield quality that made all the difference.
Ukraine will face England and France finishes up against Sweden next Tuesday as Group D concludes. Games will be played simultaneously.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.