LONDON – France needs an unprecedented comeback to avoid missing its first World Cup in 20 years. No European team has ever qualified for the World Cup through the playoffs after losing the first leg 2-0.
Two decades after France failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup following a shock home defeat against Bulgaria, Les Bleus lost to Ukraine for the first time in the first leg by a two-goal margin.
That means the odds are indeed heavily stacked against Didier Deschamps's team ahead of Tuesday's return game at the Stade de France.
The French players' display was so poor on Friday that it led the French media to question if the national side's performance had been the "worst in history."
To turn around the result, France needs to rediscover its attacking potency as Deschamps — who won the 1998 World Cup and the European championships two years later as a player, must decide who to play up front against an extremely well organized Ukrainian side.
"We'll need to have that bit of folly that will make for an exceptional match," Deschamps said. "It's up to the players to get into that mentality. But we also have to realize they won't play with 10 players at the back. We have to put them under pressure from the start and show a lot of determination and keep the high tempo going until the end."
Flourishing in the Premier League this season, Loic Remy had a poor game on the right wing in Kiev and could be replaced with Karim Benzema, meaning that Deschamps could keep Olivier Giroud as his central sriker. Samir Nasri had a quiet game and may be replaced in the playmaker's role by Mathieu Valbuena.
Franck Ribery will also need to raise his game with the national team to prove that he fully deserves the FIFA Ballon d'Or. Ribery who struggled to make any meaningful impact in Ukraine, has been tipped to claim the FIFA accolade after helping Bayern Munich to the Champions League.
"Obviously, Ukraine knew how dangerous Ribery could be," Deschamps said. "They were very aggressive toward him. They made a lot of fouls that went unpunished. Ukraine eliminated Franck. He had very few chances to take on his opponent one-on-one. There was always a midfielder around to provide backup."
With Laurent Koscielny suspended after his sending off, Deschamps has a major headache in defense and must decide who will play alongside Eric Abidal. With Raphael Varane struggling with a sore knee, Deschamps must pick between the inexperienced Mamamdou Sakho and Bacary Sagna. Sagna plays at right back for Arsenal but has played center half before.
"We were shaken over there against a very committed team who played at a very high level while we were average," Deschamps said. "We took a slap and the situation is favorable for them. It won't be easy. We're obviously not in a good position. We have to reverse the trend and believe in this now."
After winning the first round of his duel with Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he scored the winner in Portugal's 1-0 win over Sweden, Cristiano Ronaldo hopes he can again steal the show at the Swedish national stadium on Tuesday night.
While Ibrahimovic failed to impress in Lisbon, Ronaldo dived to glance in a left-wing cross for his 44th goal in 108 international appearances, and almost added another when he headed against the crossbar late on.
Portugal, which beat Sweden at home for the first time in its history, missed automatic qualification for a major international tournament for the third time in a row after qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 through the playoffs.
"It was an important goal and it gave us victory," Ronaldo said. "We could have scored one or two more goals but this advantage gives us confidence for the second leg. Nothing is settled yet. It's 50-50."
All four return playoffs matches take place on Tuesday, with Greece in a comfortable position following its 3-1 win over Romania in the first leg and Iceland having kept alive its hopes of reaching its first World Cup with a 0-0 home draw against Croatia.