France produced a stunning performance to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit and qualify for the World Cup finals on Tuesday, beating Ukraine 3-0 in Paris.
In front of a raucous crowd at the Stade de France, Les Bleus took the lead midway through the first half through Mamadou Sakho and leveled the tie on aggregate when Karim Benzema netted from an offside position on 34 minutes.
That strike came shortly after the Real Madrid man had seen a perfectly good goal disallowed, and the controversy continued as Ukraine defender Yevhen Khacheridi was sent off early in the second period.
France made their one-man advantage count as an Oleg Gusev own-goal put them ahead in the tie for the first time in the 72nd minute and Didier Deschamps’ side saw out the rest of the game to win 3-2 on aggregate.
“Four days ago, we were in a bad position, but the players were fantastic tonight,” Deschamps told French television.
“I didn’t have doubts, but we played a huge match and this qualification is very important for French football,” he said.
“It’s a bit of a tradition that when French teams have their backs against the wall, they perform and we had a lot of heart and determination today,” Deschamps added.
“Now we’ve qualified, we’re capable of some great things,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine coach Mikhail Fomenko confirmed that he would continue in his role, despite the disappointment and added: “I am really sorry for the result, but the fact we got this far is already something positive.”
As expected, Deschamps rang the changes, making five in all to his starting line-up from Friday’s 2-0 loss in Kiev, with Raphael Varane, Sakho, Yohan Cabaye, Mathieu Valbuena and Benzema coming in.
For Ukraine, there were three changes, notably in defense, where the banned Oleksandr Kucher and Artem Fedetskiy were replaced by Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Vitaliy Mandziuk respectively.
The visitors must have been braced for a backs-to-the-wall job, but they could not have expected France to play with such a high level of intensity in the first half.
Ukraine were pinned back from kick-off, and goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov turned a Valbuena shot around the post inside three minutes, before Paul Pogba headed a Valbuena corner over the bar.
Just as the away side thought they had taken some of the early sting out of the contest, their defense — which had gone eight successive matches without conceding before this game — was finally undone in the 22nd minute.
When a Valbuena set-piece delivery from the right fell to Franck Ribery on the edge of the box, the Bayern Munich man’s shot was blocked by Pyatov, but Sakho was on hand to convert the rebound from a tight angle, the Liverpool defender netting his first international goal.
France’s hope turned to genuine belief, and the home fans rose to their feet as a glorious shooting opportunity fell to Pogba on the edge of the box. However, the young midfielder could only blaze his effort over the bar.
Controversy followed as Benzema bundled a low Ribery cross from the left into the net at the back post, only for the offside flag to cut short his joy.
It was the wrong decision by the Slovenian officials, but remarkably another error on their part allowed France to level the tie.
A scramble in the Ukrainian box saw the ball come off Valbuena and fall to Benzema. This time, he was offside, but the assistant’s flag stayed down as he fired home.