DONETSK -- The heavens opened and Donetsk’s magnificent football cathedral was hit by a storm of biblical proportions.
With the rain falling heavier, referee Bjorn Kuipers took the players off after just five minutes and the match seemed destined to be a washout (along with a devastating logistical blow to the Euro 2012 co-hosts), but what followed was close to a sporting miracle as the Donbass Arena’s industrious groundsmen refused to let the elements spoil a game that this city has been waiting five years to see.
After some hard work and prayers to the rain gods to stop their cruel downpour, the match restarted, but salvation was not to be Ukraine’s. They came into this Group D encounter having never beaten France and never having won at the Donbass Arena; there was to be no breaking of that hoodoo. The partisan patriots in yellow and blue ensured the atmosphere crackled like the lightning overhead during an open first-half, but their players’ resistance cracked when Jeremy Menez opened the scoring in the 53rd minute.
A wall of silence greeted the goal and was broken only by a handful of Tricolours waving defiantly in one corner of the ground. When Yohan Cabaye doubled the lead three minutes later, Ukraine’s fans were left to ponder whether an abandonment may have been the best course of action after all. Playing in a city that boasts a rich mining heritage, it was time for Ukraine to dig deep, but Oleg Blokhin’s side appeared drained of confidence and energy, and the foothold they had threatened in an enthralling first half soon faded.
The negative reaction translated to the stands, too – the optimism of the soccer-loving sunbathers in Donetsk's Sherbakova Park on a scorching July afternoon was replaced with sodden spirits. Boos rang out in protest against a group that had shown such heart in battling back in their first game.
“I said the win against Sweden did not guarantee us anything, that if we thought we were in the quarter-finals we were mistaken,” a frustrated Blokhin said after the game. “I didn’t like that after the second goal, my team stopped playing... [But] I think [the booing] it’s not fair, the supporters should support their team.
“I saw Irish fans cheering their team until the end against Spain. You should support your team always. We now have the impression that when we are winning everything is fine, but when we’re not we should be shot. Please whistle at me, but don’t whistle at the team. The guys are not guilty, they tried everything they could.”
Ukraine’s players could certainly not be faulted in the first half; the tempo of the game from both sides was mesmerising after all watching presumed the 56-minute rain delay would be a rhythm-ruining one. Goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov was in inspired form as he denied Karim Benzema, Menez and, particularly acrobatically, Philippe Mexes, while Ukraine’s twin-wing threats of Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko offered explosiveness on the counter-attack.
But Blanc remained patient, notably with Menez, who was kept on at half-time despite missing a host of opportunities. It was a decision that the France coach was clearly content with in his post-match press conference after the PSG striker vindicated it with the opening goal.
“We really studied the Ukrainian side very well and they do leave a lot of space in behind,” Blanc explained. “They like to play football, but there are imbalances at the back and there are spaces you can take advantage of. We’ve got quick players and Jeremy is one of those. We know he’s a very good player and he’s gaining confidence at international level. Once he gets there, he’ll really be able to show us the full extent of his capabilities. It was a very encouraging display from him.”
It was more than just three points for France, too. While Ukraine continue to fight their curse at the Donbass Arena, Les Bleus cast off one of their own by claiming a first victory at a major tournament since the World Cup semi-final against Portugal. Playmaker Ribery was part of the team that day and was delighted to shed the albatross: “We had not won a tournament game for six years. It’s a huge length of time. We were freer tonight, we enjoyed ourselves and we relaxed a bit. We like attacking we always want to score goals.”
What Ukraine would give for that sort of freedom. Inspired by their supporters in Kiev, the players appeared almost fearful of them in Donetsk as their dreadful record in the city continued. They will return there with a chance for redemption against England on Tuesday; Blokhin’s boys will be out to stop the Three Lions raining on their parade.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Franck Ribery. The enforced break only seemed to whet Ribery’s appetite for the ball and he was bustling all over the pitch after the restart. He weaved his creative wand time after time, and was a nightmare for both his Bayern Munich team-mate Antoliy Tymoshuck and, when he drifted to the wing, right-back Oleg Gusev. Ribery deserved an assist but Menez squandered two chances he created.
FRANCE VERDICT: Blanc shook things up by bringing in Menez and Gael Clichy and though the former’s inclusion had looked like being a poor call as he spurned four chances, it was eventually justified with his goal. As against England, France dominated possession, but this time took their chances and should be confident of progress if they can play with the same attacking verve against Sweden.
UKRAINE VERDICT: Blokhin’s gameplan looked to be working perfectly in the first half as Ukraine allowed France to take control of possession, but were still able to create chances. Andriy Shevchenko had a particularly memorable opening when he controlled a long ball sumptuously on his shoulder before firing straight at Hugo Lloris. The former European Footballer of the Year looked hungry in the early exchanges but like his team-mates, he tailed off badly in the second period. Progress is still a real possibility for Ukraine, though they need to shake off their Donbass jinx when they face England if they are to make it happen.