Fearful French face final curtain

Paris does not possess a Last Chance Saloon.

The nearest thing to it is a restaurant called La Dernière Séance on Avenue de la République: the Final Sitting, named after one of those moody French songs from the 1970s mourning the loss of the local picture house. “An old man weeps in the corner,” sang Eddy Mitchell. “His cinema has shut, it was the final sitting, and the final curtain has fallen....”

Should France go out of the World Cup against Ukraine tonight in the Stade de France it won’t be quite so drastic, but the mood has been sombre since their 2-0 defeat in Kiev on Friday.

It is hard to find much sympathy for Les Bleus, even inside France let alone abroad. Their tainted qualification for the last tournament is remembered, as is the debacle in South Africa. The image of the national side took a pasting from which it has barely recovered.

The football elite does not enjoy great public support at the moment either. The clubs have just called off their threatened “strike” against the government’s proposed payroll levy of 75% on players earning over €1 million a year. The supertax is one of the few government measures that has met with widespread approval: football’s attempt to win exemption provoked a strong backlash.

France have a history of either performing brilliantly in the World Cup or sinking without trace. Winners in 1998, they were humiliated four years later, losing to Senegal in the group stage and failing to score a single goal. Finalists and unfortunate losers in 2006, they hit rock bottom in 2010.

To win through they will have to reverse both the psychology and the physical approach they had in Kiev. They were bullied off the ball by a well-organised and very motivated side. Their 4-2-3-1 formation was largely nullified and players such as Franck Ribery and Paul Pogba, so impressive for their clubs, were hardly able to get on the ball.

The mood in the French camp has seemed unconvincing at times. They were incommunicado last week, as their coach Didier Deschamps tried to insulate the players from media pressure. Since Friday there has been an element of frenzy in some of the interviews. “The Rage of Despair” was l’Equipe’s front page headline yesterday, superimposed on four snarling mugshots of players. All the talk has been of the players’ readiness to die for the cause. It could mean they are in the mood to go over the top from the first minute, but it could also mean that they blow themselves out early on and lack the steadiness required not to concede while overturning that two-goal deficit.

Ukraine coach Mikhail Fomenko is one from the old Soviet school, tough and good at organisation. His defence has been sound and in Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko he has two genuine wingers who break at pace and can score.

Ukraine’s recent away record is also good, although the strongest opposition they have faced was England and at Wembley they got the draw they wanted. However, their resolute back line has had to be reorganised for this match as they have two defenders suspended. Andriy Pyatov is statistically their best goalkeeper of all time and Ukraine only conceded four in their group matches, but for Shakhtar Donetsk his record has been marred by bad blunders and some dreadful errors of judgement.

So this is a game that could go either way and could change abruptly as a result of one mistake or one successful thrust. Cliffhanging stuff. Definitely one for the neutrals and with the potential for an extra reel before that final curtain descends.

FRANCE (probable): Lloris, Debuchy, Abidal, Sakho/Sagna, Evra, Valbuena, Matuidi, Pogba, Ribery, Giroud, Remy.

UKRAINE: (probable): Pyatov, Khacheridi, Shevchuk, Fedetskiy, Rakytskiy, Yarmolenko, Stepanenko, Konoplyanka, Rotan, Edmar, Zozulya.


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