A selection gamble by coach Didier Deschamps paid off in spectacular style on Tuesday as France overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to beat Ukraine 3-0 and qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Les Bleus turned on a show at the Stade de France and, for once, they were backed by a raucous home crowd.
Deschamps rang the changes after his team were outclassed in Kiev in Friday’s first leg, bringing in centre backs Mamadou Sakho and Raphael Varane, midfielder Yohan Cabaye, winger Mathieu Valbuena and striker Karim Benzema.
“We overturned the situation but the credit goes to the players,” said former midfielder Deschamps who captained France to their 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 title triumphs.
“It’s they who are on the pitch. It’s their story, I just live through them.”
Qualification for the finals in Brazil in June means Deschamps’s contract is automatically extended by two years until 2016.
He was also in charge of Monaco when they overturned a two-goal deficit against Real Madrid on the way to the 2004 Champions League final but Tuesday’s performance was extra sweet for Deschamps.
“I have experienced great moments but tonight we’re talking about France and the fact that we’re going to the World Cup,” he said.
Liverpool defender Sakho was the man of the match, opening the scoring after 22 minutes and also pressurising Oleg Gusev into turning the ball into his own net in the 72nd.
Benzema grabbed the second goal while Cabaye played a major role in front of the defence, allowing the inspirational Paul Pogba creative licence.
Varane’s composure at the back was also an asset after Eric Abidal’s woeful performance in Kiev while Valbuena combined well with full back Mathieu Debuchy.
“I knew I would need that (4-3-3) formation at some point,” Deschamps explained after switching from Friday’s 4-2-3-1 system.
“I made my decision on Sunday. We needed to score but also to keep our balance and Cabaye, Pogba and (Blaise) Matuidi allowed us to do that.”
The biggest difference, though, was in France’s keenness to dominate their opponents physically.
“We were focused on our goal and on the will we had to put into the game,” said Pogba.
“After the first leg we told ourselves that we wanted to go to Brazil and that we would show it.”
“They were brave,” said French federation president Noel Le Graet. “They showed they were a team.”
While Les Bleus will take part in their fifth consecutive World Cup, it was the fourth time Ukraine failed to qualify via the playoffs after missing out in 1998, 2002 and 2010.
“I have to thank my players for reaching this stage,” said coach Mikhail Fomenko.
After being treated to a round of applause by Ukrainian reporters, Fomenko was asked if he would carry on as coach.
“Yes I will continue,” he replied.