By Igor Nitsak
KIEV (Reuters) - Lackluster France faced the embarrassing prospect of missing out on a major tournament for the first time in 20 years when they lost 2-0 away to Ukraine in the first leg of their World Cup playoff tie on Friday.
Each team picked up a red card as Les Bleus, who last missed a major competition when they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals, succumbed to Roman Zozulia's goal shortly after the hour and Andriy Yarmolenko's 82nd minute penalty.
France's Laurent Koscielny and the home side's Oleksandr Kucher were sent off in injury time ahead of the return leg at the Stade de France on Tuesday when Ukraine will start as favorites to secure their second World Cup appearance.
France - World Cup winners in 1998 - barely had a chance apart from a Samir Nasri effort and were shaken throughout by a bold Ukraine side, who reached the quarter-finals in 2006.
"Opening the scoring gave them more strength and we made a mistake on the penalty," France coach Didier Deschamps lamented.
"It's obviously a very bad result. We have to believe (we can go through) but Ukraine are the team in the best position to qualify," he added in an on-pitch interview with French TV channel TF1.
"We still have 90 minutes at home."
Deschamps, on the pitch when the red-faced Les Bleus failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup after a 2-1 last-minute defeat against Bulgaria in 1993, had opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Olivier Giroud up front and Karim Benzema on the bench.
The visitors tried to keep possession but Ukraine were the most dangerous side and France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who started the game 12 days after suffering a concussion, made his first block from Yarmolenko's shot in the seventh minute.
Ukraine also came close on the half hour when Edmar's diving header from Ruslan Rotan's cross went wide after another nice move from the hosts.
FIFA Ballon d'Or hopeful Franck Ribery was closely marked as Les Bleus failed to create clear-cut chances and at the back their weak spot was the left side with center half Eric Abidal and full back Patrice Evra struggling to cope with Yarmolenko's pace.
In the 61st minute, Zozulia squeezed his shot just under Lloris from Edmar's touch to put the home side ahead.
Four minutes later, France almost hit back but Nasri, in a perfect position, shot straight at Andriy Pyatov.
Giroud, who failed to muster a chance, was substituted for Benzema 20 minutes from time as France searched for a way to match their win against the same opponents in Euro 2012.
But it was Ukraine who scored again when Yarmolenko converted a penalty after Koscielny fouled Zozulia in the box.
"I am grateful to our players who took into consideration that psychology would be the crucial factor in this game," Ukraine coach Mykhailo Fomenko told a news conference.
"It would have been better to make it 3-0 as we had chances to increase our advantage. We will find out if this is a solid result only after the return game."
Instead of playing conservatively in the closing stages, Fomenko's side continued to push hard and that resulted in Koscielny snapping in added time as the Arsenal center back slapped Kucher in the face.
He was shown a straight red card and will miss the return leg, with Liverpool's Mamadou Sakho set to be paired with Abidal at the Stade de France as Raphael Varane has been nursing a knee injury all week.
Ukraine will be without Kucher, who was sent off after picking up a second yellow card five minutes into stoppage time for a foul on Ribery.
Fellow defender Artem Fedetskiy will also miss Tuesday's game in Paris after being booked in the second half.
(Writing by Julien Pretot in Paris; Editing by Mark Meadows)