After a comfortable 2-0 victory over co-hosts Ukraine, France only need a draw against Sweden in their final group match on Tuesday to qualify for the quarter-finals of Euro 2012. Laurent Blanc's dark horses are growing in confidence.
France ignited their Euro 2012 campaign on Friday with a slick 2-0 win over co-hosts Ukraine, putting Les Bleus on the verge of the knockout stages.
The victory, France’s first in the finals of a tournament since 2006, means a draw against already-eliminated Sweden in their last match on Tuesday will be enough to guarantee Les Bleus a place in the quarter-finals.
Two quick-fire goals in the second half from Jeremy Menez and Yohan Cabaye were enough to see off Ukraine, who now need to beat England in their final match to qualify for the knockout stages.
The gulf in class between the two teams was such that France’s chances of victory were threatened more by the violent electrical storm, which caused play to be suspended for an hour, than a Ukraine team backed by fervent home support.
Both teams weathered the storm but when the match finally got underway on a sodden pitch France proved too much for their opponents.
Their margin of victory could have been greater with Blanc’s men seemingly creating goalscoring opportunities at will.
'We enjoyed ourselves'
France had gained plaudits for their neat build-up play after their first match against England, but were criticised in some quarters for failing to create clear-cut chances.
Against Ukraine Les Bleus managed to transfer their dominance into goals.
Karim Benzema, who set up both French goals, revelled in the crucial win.
"We enjoyed ourselves and we didn’t concede any goals," said the Real Madrid striker. "After the match agaist England, it was important to get three points."
"We played together and created chances and produced some attractive play. We have to continue. We made them run around and then afterwards we had control of the ball."
Despite all the pre-match hype surrounding Ukraine’s veteran striker Andriy Shevchenko, the former Milan and Chelsea player was unable to reproduce the match-winning performance delivered against Sweden.
The win justified the changes coach Laurent Blanc made to his team by dropping Florent Malouda and Patrice Evra and bringing in Manchester City’s Gael Clichy and Paris Saint-Germain’s Menez.
If results go their way France could even lose their final group match against Sweden and still qualify for the quarter-finals, but defender Phillippe Mexes insists they must finish the job properly.
"After a match like that, its easy to talk, to say everything’s fine," said the Milan player. "We have to stay focused on what we want to do and where we want to go.
"We’ve not done anything yet. It’d be a shame to ruin something that promises to be great," he said
With Sweden already knocked out after losing 3-2 against England, France will not expect too many difficulties in the final group match and can begin looking forward to a quarter-final encounter against either Spain, Italy or Croatia.
Friday’s win impressed the French press, who have not always had the greatest relationship with the national team.
After a poor showing at Euro 2008 and the debacle of their 2010 World Cup campaign, the media are strarting to believe in Blanc’s new-look squad.
Sports daily L'Equipe hailed France's "masterful" win, the first in a major tournament since their semi-final defeat of Portugal at the 2006 World Cup.
"The sky over Donetsk was more dangerous than the Ukraine team," noted L’Equipe under the headline "Blue lightning".
"Les Bleus let loose" was the headline in Le Figaro, referring to Blanc’s pre-match call for his team to go on the attack against Ukraine.
"Finally it clicked" roared Aujourd’hui en France on its front page, recognising that the team has taken a big step towards the quarter-finals.
Now they just need to finish the job on Tuesday.