CLAIREFONTAINE, France (AP) — Winger Franck Ribery knows he will be a marked man against Ukraine in the first match of their World Cup playoff on Friday and is confident that can play straight into France's hands.
The Bayern Munich winger is in the best form of his career and a main contender for the Golden Balll. He has already scored 13 goals for club and country this season, including spectacular shots from distance, delicate chips over the goalkeeper and a powerful free kick last weekend.
He is France's most dangerous player by far and Ukraine's defenders are likely to double up on him whenever he gets the ball. "What's good when you're in form is that you're never one on one, I often find myself with two or three players on me," Ribery said Monday at France's training camp. "Sometimes that allows other players to be free, and that's a plus point for the team."
Jeered by fans and derided by politicians after the World Cup in South Africa three years ago, when he received a three-match ban from the French Football Federation following his perceived role as one of the ringleaders of France's notorious training-ground strike, Ribery has turned public opinion back in his favor.
Once more, he is the fans' favorite. "I'll do everything I can to be at my best and to put the other players at ease," he said. "I know there's a lot of pressure on me. More cameras follow me and people are following more closely what Franck Ribery does on the pitch. The Golden Ball makes you dream and it's getting closer and closer."
He credits Bayern coach Pep Guardiola, who guided Barcelona during their most successful era, for making him more selfish in front of goal. "What's given me this confidence is the arrival of Pep Guardiola, he has helped me a lot. Every day he tells me to take a chance, to shoot at goal more. I always had this desire to pass the ball, even two meters from goal," Ribery said. "He would tell me 'It's up to you to score.' He's given me that little bit of confidence and the breakthrough has happened."
France has never lost to Ukraine, and comfortably won 2-0 at last year's European Championship in Ukraine. However, Ukraine has improved and pushed England all the way in World Cup qualifying. "They'll be two very difficult games. We can't take this team lightly and tell ourselves we're already in Brazil," Ribery said. "They're very strong defensively, concede few goals and are strong on the break."
With the form he's in, however, Ukraine has much more to fear from Ribery. "I will take them on, because I think they're a team that leaves a lot of space on the flanks," he said.